The other 'Fab Five': New Nike shoe hints of scandal

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Nike's biggest collegiate partner might end up calling a foul on the marketer's latest sneaker of choice.

Nike plans to introduce its newest basketball shoe, the Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 on March 24, timed to the NCAA men's basketball tournament and accompanied by a comprehensive print, TV and billboard campaign from independent Wieden & Kennedy, Portland. Nike, which spent $133 million in media buys last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, did not give a budget but said this would be its largest footwear campaign of the year.

Nike is hyping the shoe as eight years in the making, with product developments and innovations culled from eight previous Nike sneakers.

But the Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 is also being touted as a multi-colored update of the sneaker Nike made for the University of Michigan's "Fab Five" for the 1992 NCAA tournament. The Fab Five were so named because Michigan made a run to the 1992 national championship game using a lineup that started an unprecedented five freshmen.

The players became a national phenomenon and basketball cultural icons, having introduced the multi-colored sneaker-the first time a team wore a sneaker in colors other than the school's color scheme. The next year, the team introduced the black sneakers with black socks that have become so common.

Last year, however, the university disassociated itself from the Fab Five. It took down banners and expunged names and victories from the record book when it was learned that current NBA star Chris Webber, the marquee player on the Fab Five, and three more players in subsequent years took a total of $616,000 from a program booster and fan. Accepting money while playing collegiate ball is against NCAA rules.

unknown factors

It is not known if the ad campaign for the Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 will use images of the Fab Five, but the last thing the University of Michigan wants to see is a resurrection of that era. When asked if the campaign would contain references to or images of Michigan's former players, a Nike spokesman said "not really" and declined to comment further. Wieden & Kennedy referred calls to the client.

Michigan VP-Communications Julie Peterson declined to comment, saying the university has taken a position of not speaking about Mr. Webber or the Fab Five. Ms. Peterson said she did not know if there was anything in the language of the school's contract with Nike that would prohibit the marketer from using images of former Michigan teams and players.

Nike is the dominant player when it comes to striking deals with university athletic departments, and Michigan is its best customer: in 2001, the marketer and the school signed a seven-year, $25 million deal.

In exchange for cash and apparel, universities agree to wear uniforms, equipment and shoes with the Nike logo. In exchange, Nike receives TV exposure from the teams that wear the swoosh.

Nike could have as many as 48 of the 65 teams in this year's NCAA basketball team wearing its logo. And it's possible viewers of the three-week tournament on Viacom's CBS-which drew more than 130 million viewers last year, according Nielsen Media Research-will see teams wearing the new Air Zoom Huarache 2K4.

Nike declined to comment about the product innovations, but a description of the shoe on its Web site described it has "a revolutionary lightweight, supportive and futuristic hoop shoe for the players at the highest level." It will retail for $125.

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