The life of an NFL Draft prospect changes in January. One day, the player is a student-athlete. The next, he can start negotiating sponsorship deals.
And of course, he can start making money.
Former North Carolina State wide receiver Kelvin Harmon is 22 years old and figured that out over the past few months. He was born in Liberia and moved to the United States at age 4. He has yet to play in an NFL game, but he has already cashed in.
“It takes the average person like 40 years to get to this point I’m at,” Harmon says of his pre-draft income. “It’s like, I was just in college. Just in high school three years ago.”
A huge chunk of that money comes from the Swoosh. Harmon was announced Wednesday as part of Nike’s 2019 NFL Draft Class, a group of 27 rookies that also includes Kyler Murray, Damien Harris and Bryce Love.
“I always loved Nike growing up, I just didn’t wear it in college because I went to NC State, but Nike was always my favorite brand growing up,” Harmon says. “It’s fits me as an athlete, a person, the brand. It’s the guys like LeBron, Serena Williams, Kobe. Those are the types that made it a brand I could see partnering with.”
On Wednesday, Harmon was joined by fellow rookies Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) and Devin Singletary (Florida Atlantic), and NFL veterans Ndamukong Suh (Rams) and Darius Slay (Lions) for a media combine. While Darren Rovell stole the show, the idea for the event was to take the media through the training drills of NFL prospects. The prospects also had a chance to explain why they chose Nike in the first place — an important decision considering that apparel deals are often the first sponsorship agreements players enter into as professionals.
Samuel wore Under Armour at South Carolina. The other four athletes in attendance all wore adidas in college. Now they’re all Nike clients, and the brand’s popularity among youths is a piece of leverage here. All five individuals at the event mentioned they grew up on Nike, despite wearing different brands in college. The numbers back it up. In Spring 2015, research firm Piper Jaffray listed Nike as the top preferred clothing brand (19 percent) and footwear brand (46 percent) among teens.
While adidas has notably made a push in the industry – and announced an NFL rookie class of its own this week – Nike can still use its brand recognition among this generation in pitches.
“I grew up a Nike and Jordan guy,” Samuel says. “The shoes I wore in college were a different brand, but I didn’t like it as well. So it was kind of a no-brainer for me, where I was going.”
“Growing up, I always loved Nike because I was an Air Force guy, a Jordan guy, and then they [got] Jordans off the Nike account and I was ready,” echoes Slay, a two-time Pro Bowler who was drafted in 2013. “I couldn’t see myself in Under Armour. I heard they were the most comfortable shoe, but I still can’t wear them because they’re ugly. Nike got all the swag.”
In the midst of draft preparation, much of January through April is spent listening to pitches inside and outside of the apparel sphere. For a player like Harmon, who believes he flew a bit under the radar at NC State, a partnership was far more about acknowledgement than free gifts.
“I really want a side-by-side partnership with me being able to have the leeway to do other things with the brand, use the brand and not be, like, locked down,” Harmon says. “If I want to use the brand for a charity event or something, I just want to be able to expand my brand the way I want to.”
While Harmon and Samuel are projected to go in the first few rounds of the draft, Singletary is expected to selected later in the weekend. Singletary notes he was not necessarily looking for brands who might shine an immediate spotlight on him but instead ones who will stand by him throughout his journey. He believes that Nike, despite its lofty client list of names like LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Odell Beckham Jr., checks that box.
“They always have my back. If, God forbid, I get injured, it’s still going to be there for me,” Singletary says. “If I’m balling, they’re going to be able to put me on the highest platform.”
Not everyone makes their apparel choices with that bigger picture in mind. But for the first time in their playing careers, this year’s rookies get a say in what brands they represent. If current trends are any indication, expect a steady supply of young players to keep signing on with Nike.