Greensboro-based Kontoor Brands has used professional sports to promote its Wrangler jeans and clothing for decades. Its relationship with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association dates back to 1948. The denim brand has also been a longtime NASCAR sponsor, and Wrangler recently became the official jeans of the Dallas Cowboys.
But name, image and likeness (NIL) rules for college athletes are allowing it to go after a younger customer base more aggressively.
In the last two years, the company has signed NIL deals with 10 athletes, primarily in Texas, to help promote a collection of licensed collegiate apparel. University of Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers (pictured), Ohio State University tight end Cade Stover and Texas volleyball middle blocker Asjia O’Neal post regularly on social media in their Wrangler clothes, giving the company a bigger presence with the under-35 age group.
Since Kontoor began promoting college athletes, it’s had more than 240 million media impressions for the Wrangler college collection of clothing. Sports Illustrated and The Houston Chronicle covered its deal with Ewers, for example. And it’s seen higher scores when it measures brand awareness and purchase consideration.
“It’s the evolution of sports sponsorships,” says John Meagher, senior director of marketing for Wrangler. “It is the intersection between sports marketing and influencers, engaging with audiences. That’s what we like about it. It feels authentic.”
While the company is in a “test and learn phase” with NIL, he’d like to see the marketing around colleges and college athletes become a major way it sells Wrangler clothing. He’s looking at adding deals with Southeastern Conference teams for 2024. “This is one part of a range of tactics that look at college sports and a younger audience, where we can to some degree see some sell-through.”
The $70 billion annual denim clothing market is expected to reach $130 billion over the next decade, according to market researcher Fact.MR. Companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch are entering the field, meaning Kontoor needs to find new ways to sell its brands, which also include Lee jeans.
It helps that college football, and other college sports, are especially popular in the South and Southwest, where Wrangler wants to expand its sales. “Quinn Ewers was someone that had reached out to us because he was such a fan of Wrangler,” says Meagher. “He had grown up with the Wrangler logo on his back pocket, and his values aligned with Wrangler.”
Kontoor held photo shoots with Ewers and the other athletes wearing Wrangler clothing, which were then used on their social media accounts. In addition to Ewers and O’Neal, Wrangler also had NIL deals last year with athletes on UT’s baseball, swimming and softball teams. “Texas is the heartland for us,” says Meagher. “It’s the heartland for cowboys, and our brand is strong there. Texas made so much sense.”
This year, Wrangler added Stover and signed O’Neal for a second year. Stover, projected to be an NFL draft pick in 2024, grew up on a cattle farm in Ohio and has done promotional work for the Ohio Beef Council, as well as agriculture company Ag-Pro. (He has said he’d prefer to be paid for his NIL sponsorships in tractors, not money.) O’Neal, a volleyball All-American and a sports management major, has become “professional” in how she promotes the brand on her social media accounts, says Meagher.
Noting the growing interest after the University of Colorado signed Deion Sanders to be its football coach, Wrangler also signed on this year to be the official clothing supplier of students who run onto the school’s Folsom Field before football games with school mascot Ralphie, an 850-pound buffalo. Supplies include a cowboy hat, button-up shirt and jeans.
NIL deals for brands such as Wrangler are smart, says Eben Novy-Williams of Sportico, a Penske Media operation, because they are usually cheaper than signing a professional athlete and because the people who live in many college towns and cities are fans of those teams because they’re alumni. “In a specific city like Austin, the UT athlete is better than partnering with someone on the Mavericks or the Cowboys, and cheaper as well,” says Novy-Williams. “Someone like Quinn Ewers would be a way to reach that fan base.”
To be sure, some companies, particularly those run or owned by success-obsessed alums, are using NIL deals to attract athletes to the university. Miami billionaire John Ruiz has used NIL deals with his company LifeWallet to encourage football players to transfer to the University of Miami, where he’s a longtime booster. Typically, larger universities can offer more extensive NIL packages than smaller programs. After Wake Forest University quarterback Sam Hartman transferred to Notre Dame this past year, he signed NIL deals with UnderArmour, Homefield Apparel, Topps and Beats by Dre.
Kontoor, a publicly traded company that split off from VF Corp. in 2019 and has a market capitalization of $2.6 billion, wants deals with athletes that personify its product’s image. For Wrangler, it’s about grit, confidence, and humility, says Meagher. “It helps us punch above our weight in terms of a media spend and a marketing spend.” Kontoor spent about $140 million annually on advertising and marketing during 2021-22, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
NIL deals are beneficial to the athletes, particularly with potential professional careers, by giving them experience in negotiating contracts and aligning with credible brands, says
Michael McCann, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute. “They’re getting real-life training,” he says. “A lot of them won’t go onto the pros, so whatever they get is something that they will value and could help them with costs.”
Meagher likes how the deals connect Wrangler with teams and athletes. “It makes people connect with them,” he says. “They feel true and down to earth and someone they can root for.”
A Tar Heel linebacker who knows how to deal.
After the first seven games of the 2023 season, UNC linebacker Cedric Gray had recorded 70 tackles as well as an interception and two fumble recoveries.
Gray, a Charlotte native and second-team All-American in 2022, had also recorded a Mt. Olive Pickle commercial before the season opener against South Carolina and taped a commercial for All About Insurance, a Chapel Hill-based Nationwide agency. There’s also the Big Ced burger – topped with bacon, cheese, egg and lettuce – at Al’s Burger Shack in downtown Chapel Hill.
It’s part of the new frontier in college sports, where athletes can use their notoriety to make some money after the NCAA approved name, image and likeness (NIL) guidelines in July 2021. Gray won’t disclose his finances, and the value of NIL agreements are rarely disclosed. But college sports website On3’s algorithm projects his deal-making potential at $429,000 in the next 12 months. By comparison, On3 predicts UNC quarterback Drake Maye could attract $1.3 million in transactions.
Gray works with NIL agent Pet Sumner, an account executive at The Sumner Group in Gastonia. Sumner, who played college basketball at Maine-Farmington, sees NIL work as expanding the agency and using his sports knowledge. “Brands aren’t going to reach out unless you’re making a name for yourself,” he says. “They want a guy who gets on TV and makes a lot of plays.”
Mt. Olive considered a national commercial for its Pickle Juicers, but Sumner suggested they start with a regional ad. He recruited Gray and another client, South Carolina linebacker Debo Williams, for a spot in which the two argue about which university is the real “Carolina.” They agreed that Pickle Juicers helped their workouts.
“I just thought it was a great idea and a good opportunity and related to sports,” says Gray, a sports administration major.
Mt. Olive looked for college athletes who personified the privately owned pickle company – reliable folks who do simple things well. Pickle juice is a favorite rehydration drink for exercise enthusiasts.
Gray says he is interested in NIL deals with companies that are professional and responsive. “If I have a deal in a particular field, I try not to crisscross,” he says. Regulations prevent agreements related to gambling and alcohol.
Sumner says deals with auto dealerships or companies that are run by alumni are good for the athletes. He also struck a deal with Al’s Burger Shack for former UNC basketball player Puff Johnson and a suit deal for former UNC wide receiver Emery Simmons, now playing at Utah.
Gray also works through Heels4Life, a collective for UNC football players, where companies can enter proposed agreements, athletes can accept them, and then the university’s compliance officer can review the deals. Once the work is completed, the athlete is paid.
Few college athletes get NIL deals, despite the fact that NIL has turned some college students into millionaires. On3 says Southern Cal basketball player Bronny James – LeBron’s son – has the highest NIL value potential at $5.9 million. UNC basketball player Armando Bacot has an NIL value potential of $930,000.
Sumner plans to speak at a lawyers conference in January to see if any firms are interested in working with college athletes, particularly those who, like Gray, specialize in defending. He dreams of using the phrase, “You want the best defense,” with a couple of hard-hitters.
Sounds like Gray may have another opportunity for a commercial. ■