For Michigan players and fans, it’s gotta be the shoes.
None of the Wolverines players were alive when Mars Blackmon was first convinced that Michael Jordan’s powers came from his kicks, and the true power of the Jordan brand first took flight. Nearly three decades later, Michigan became the first college football team to wear Jordan brand uniforms and gear during the 2016 season.
While several basketball programs have rocked the Jumpman logo, the Wolverines have a unique place in the college football fashion world.
“It’s awesome,” Michigan senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson said. “It’s like Christmas every time we get something new in our (lockers).”
Jordan uniforms and cleats coming to college football were part of the deal Michigan struck with Nike after nearly a decade as an Adidas school. It’s a contract that reportedly could pay Michigan nearly $175 million and keep the two parties together through at least 2027.
As the Wolverines prepare to face Florida State in the Orange Bowl, the impact of the switch back to Nike is still being felt. While Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff are trying to put the finishing touches on a potentially top-5 recruiting class, Michigan’s association with the Jordan brand is everywhere in that world.
Social media graphics, official scholarship offers, gear to try on during official visits — Michigan is hoping the swoosh and the Jumpman logo is another reason for top recruits to come to Ann Arbor.
The switch has been a huge boon for business at The M Den, which is the official retailer for the university. Both Ann Arbor locations are stocked with Jordan gear, and business is booming.
“Michigan fans were looking for this to happen since the first day Adidas took over nine years ago,” said Scott Hirth, co-owner of The M Den. “People welcomed Nike back with open arms. People love the product. Nike did a great job with this first-year product, and everyone loves the Jordan brand wrinkle. It’s impossible to overstate the impact it’s had on our business and our community.”
The frenzied anticipation for the launch of Michigan’s new apparel line led Hirth to work with Nike and the school to plan and execute their own version of midnight madness. To celebrate the Aug. 1 release date, The M Den threw a block party and opened its doors at midnight.
“It turned into, I don’t know, 10,000 people on the street that night, 3,000 people waiting in line when the store opened,” Hirth said. “Unless we win, wait … not unless … until we win a national championship and there is a parade down that street, I can’t imagine anything bigger.”
Hirth did not divulge just how much more Jordan and Nike gear Michigan fans have been buying, but he did say it was dramatic.
“It jumped by an order of magnitude that would only happen otherwise after a national championship,” Hirth said.
His company had 250 employees before the switch. It now has about 360. There were a few additions because Michigan had eight home games this season instead of the traditional seven, but the vast majority of the roster increase was to help satisfy the demand.
Employees at The M Den aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure of enthusiastic patrons looking for Jordan gear. Michigan players have dealt with inquiries from friends and family members.
“Definitely friends. Everyone loves the Jordan gear. I’ve definitely had some interesting requests,” senior defensive lineman Matt Godin said. “It doesn’t go too well, because I still want some more Jordan gear. I get on the equipment staff about it. I just don’t have much stuff to give anyone.”
Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor was a massive boost for the program, and this beneficial move on the business side was nicely timed. Fans want to wear the same hat that rarely leaves Harbaugh’s head, unless he’s tossing it in the air in disgust. They want the coaches shirt, which Harbaugh helped design.
They also want the No. 4 jersey. That is an interesting wrinkle in this deal. Because Harbaugh played for Michigan, the school can sell jerseys with his old number on it. Most universities are shying away from jersey sales of specific players because of the lawsuits levied against the NCAA about player licensing.
One of the most noticeable things when someone first walks into The M Den is the availability of No.1 and No. 4 jerseys. Harbaugh has looked for all sorts of ways to help Michigan return to national prominence, whether it was satellite camps or sleepovers with recruits or hanging out with Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter to further expose the unification of the Michigan and Jordan brands.
“Adidas did a great job for Michigan and for the M Den and we sold a lot of nice clothing,” Hirth said. “The fact is you can’t uncouple Adidas from a great lack of success on the football field. Michigan was the first Nike school in the early 1990s and the football team had great success. No matter how you slice it, Adidas arrived the same year Rich Rodriguez did. The fact of the matter is we didn’t win a lot of football games.
“It’d be one thing to have Nike back and losing a bunch of football games. It’s an entirely different kettle of fish to have Nike back and have Coach Harbaugh, the best coach in America, and success on the football field all at once. Nike makes great stuff.
“People thought that Nike is the best, and Michigan is the best so those things needed to be back together. When it happened, people reacted strongly to it.”