The University of Adidas at Louisville
Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Dec. 25 ‘Tis The Season Issue. Subscribe today!
ON THE MORNING of Sept. 26, more than two dozen Adidas employees gathered inside a gym at the University of Louisville. They had flown in from as far away as Europe — marketers and athletic performance specialists, top designers from Adidas’ secretive Brooklyn Creator Farm. They were participating in a weeklong workshop to imagine gear, products and advertising built around Louisville’s most valuable commodity: the men’s basketball team.
The exercise was meant to simulate the vision behind a $160 million partnership between Adidas and Louisville, which had been announced the previous month. One of the largest all-school sponsorship agreements in Adidas’ history, it was much more than a shoe deal. In internal strategy documents, Louisville vowed to “write the next chapter for college athletics, for streetwear and fashion.” Adidas, a $7.9 billion corporation, would have access not only to the university’s amateur athletes but also to the business, law and music schools to help create and market new products.
As the participants prepared for Day 2, Julianne Waldron, Louisville’s associate athletic director of marketing and an architect of the deal, received a call.
“Julianne, there’s a story that just broke. You need to read it,” said a public relations official. “It has to do with Adidas.”
“They’re with me right now,” she replied, confused.
The story involved a different blockbuster deal between Adidas and Louisville — one that had played out in the shadows but was now being revealed by the U.S. Department of Justice, in New York City. That morning, the FBI had announced a sweeping corruption investigation into college basketball. In one of the most explosive allegations, Adidas employees — colleagues of the same people who were gathered in the gym — had paid a $100,000 bribe to a blue-chip recruit’s family.
Nothing has been the same in Louisville since.