UCLA lands NCAA's biggest merchandise contract ever

UCLA just signed the biggest sponsorship deal in NCAA history, the latest in a series of mega-deals in the world of college athletics.  

Danny Moloshok/AP/File
UCLA linebacker Myles Jack in action against BYU during an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 19, 2015. UCLA just signed the biggest sponsorship deal in NCAA history.

UCLA signed a sponsorship deal with Under Armor on Tuesday, a 15-year, $280-million exchange that makes the agreement the largest in the history of collegiate sponsorship. 

The increasing size and financial importance of such deals highlights the paradox of commercialized college athletics. The entire university benefits from the brand enhancement their athletic programs provide, but some athletes say the programs blur the line between education and commercial enterprise.

The deals are certainly lucrative. UCLA receives $15 million up front, as well as an annual paycheck of about $11 million in rights and fees. Under Armor will also provide $7.4 million worth of sports clothing and equipment each year, plus upgrades to the university's sports facilities, David Wharton reported for the Los Angeles Times. 

Although this is the largest deal to date, it is hardly the only sponsorship of this scope. This comes less than a year after Notre Dame's $90-million agreement with Under Armor set a new standard for college sports deals. Earlier this year, Ohio State signed an agreement with Nike worth $252 million over 15 years, and the University of Texas at Austin signed a similar agreement for $250 million in October.

"When you've got big players with deep pockets and a willingness to spend, the ante keeps getting raised," George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, told the LA Times when describing sponsorship trends. 

All this money has led some athletes to claim they should be able to unionize and negotiate the compensation they receive for the honor they bring to their alma maters. The debate has been in and out of the court system for years, as The Christian Science Monitor's Alexander LaCasse wrote in 2015:

The NCAA and universities argue that paying student athletes makes them employees of the university, and would shatter the notion and the idea of amateur athletics, according to a PBS "Frontline" examination. They contend that college athletics revolves around the spirit of competition and an athlete agreeing to participate in intercollegiate sports is exchanging the gift of a free or highly reduced cost of a college education for the privilege of competing, according to the report. 

The athletes sometimes point to deals such as UCLA's – and the long hours they put into their sports – as evidence that the spirit of amateur athletics is long gone. 

"If it is really all about the romance of amateurism, that's fine," Jon Oliver concluded on "Last Week Tonight." "Give up the sponsorships and the TV deals, stop paying the coaches, and have teams run by an asthmatic anthropology professor with a whistle." 

Defenders of the college athletics status quo insist the system provides unmeasured value to the school.

"Many of these criticisms are false or exaggerated, and where they are warranted strong reform efforts are underway that will, for the most part rectify the problems," Myles Brand, a former NCAA president, wrote in a 2006 paper. "College sport is far from perfect, but it is a popular cultural artifact that serves well both the university community and the students who participate."

For UCLA, part of that value comes from its clothing lines, which have expanded far beyond the borders of its home campus – or even its country.

"What began as a Japanese interest in the southern California college environment quickly developed into an overseas clothing market in Tokyo and Osaka by 1980," UCLA's Daily Bruin reported. "Over the past three decades, UCLA has established itself as a brand in Japan as well as Korea, China, and various European markets."

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