Phil Knight turns 85 in February, and in response to the age-old what-do-you-get-the-man-who-has-everything dilemma, Nike is giving him a basketball tournament. It’s not an original idea; Knight got the same gift five years ago. But, hey, when something is a hit, who among us hasn’t regifted? As these things tend to go, the PK85 is bigger, with an eight-team women’s field added to the 16-team men’s slate.
Knight is tickled with the whole thing, if perhaps a bit too humble about it. He feigns surprise that all of these coaches and teams would come to Portland to celebrate him, which is, of course, absurd. This is not a mandatory call to the mothership, but who really was going to say no? The field is terrific and good for March futures, but let’s be honest. The teams’ and coaches’ allegiance to Knight is stitched on their uniforms, and adhered to their soles, if not their souls. This is an invitation-only event — Nike schools only, that is — and when your school is pocketing millions from the shoe company, are you turning down a chance to fete the founder?
But there is something genuine about Knight’s giddiness about this tournament. He is legitimately looking forward to parking himself in arenas over the Thanksgiving holiday and watching ball. He’s not wrong. The field is stellar – Alabama, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oregon, Oregon State, Portland, Portland State, Purdue, UConn, Villanova, West Virginia and Xavier on the men’s side; Duke, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oregon, Oregon State and UConn for the women’s. For Knight, the nudge of his birthday, no doubt, is a factor. Of the 16 coaches in the men’s field, Tom Izzo is the closest to ranking as a peer, and he’s 17 years his junior. The inevitable generational turnover has begun, and many of Knight’s contemporaries have headed off to retirement. But his excitement is deeper than a subconscious realization that next up would be a PK90, 95 and so forth. It’s also not about a chance to gloat in his greatness. Through his company, Knight has wielded unrivaled influence in college sports and received unrivaled power in return. But that’s not his motivation.
At his heart, Knight is a fanboy. He grew up the son of a newspaperman, dreaming of writing about sports because athletes fascinated him for as long as he could remember. College sports, a uniquely American creation, especially captivated him. They still do. Though he knows better than perhaps anyone the reality of the business of college athletics, he still believes in the heartstring pulls of love for alma mater and can still find something redemptive about it all. “College sports are truly something truly special,’’ Knight, who rarely speaks to reporters, tells The Athletic in a recent telephone interview. “The special thing is the emotion that comes off of an athletic field, and it all relates to the excuse to go back and love your school.’’
And in his estimation, all of that is being destroyed, torn asunder in the race for realignment dollars. “I don’t like it,’’ he says simply. Once, that mattered. Knight had the ear of the athletic directors who counted as college sports’ biggest movers and shakers. He himself ranked atop the list of college sport influencers.
Now, as the balance of power shifts to media execs and college commissioners, Knight still has plenty to say. But at 85, can he make anyone listen? “I’m trying,’’ he says, “but I would say I’m not doing a very good job. These guys, they have their own vision, and it’s different than mine. It’s hard to get them to do otherwise.’’
Thirty years ago, Knight, via Nike, was the rabble-rouser upsetting the status quo. In April 1993, a year after Duke won its second national championship, the shoe company lured Mike Krzyzewski away from Duke’s long partnership with Adidas with a $1 million deal for the coach (his old Adidas deal was valued at $325,000). People went berserk, convinced the end of amateurism surely was nigh. Karin Lysek, then the director of sports promotion at Adidas, told The Charlotte Observer, “That was beyond our limits. It’s unheard of in the industry. It’s hard to justify that.’’
Three years ago, Adidas extended its deal with Kansas. Per the contract, viewed by The Athletic via a Freedom of Information Act request, the men’s basketball team received a $1 million bonus for winning the 2022 national title. The school’s deal is valued at $14 million annually. “If you look at the last couple of decades, how Nike has subsidized so many athletic programs, there’s no way to really quantify what Phil has done for college sports,’’ Krzyzewski says of a man he calls a good friend. “We weren’t a big state school. Nike was a big part of the branding for our program. We were successful, but Nike helped get us out there. Nike isn’t smart. They’re brilliant.’’
“Genius’’ is the word people often circle back to when asked to describe Knight. They do not mean it as a replacement for being intelligent; they mean it in its actual context, as a person with exceptional intellect and creativity. It is, frankly, hard to argue. As a middle-distance runner at Oregon, Knight appreciated the poor construction of American-made running shoes and built his graduate thesis at Stanford around it. But more intuitively, as a sports fanatic, he understood America’s fascination with heroes and pop culture and sport and saw in his nascent shoe company a place where it all could coexist. “I always thought we would succeed, even in the darkest days,’’ he says. “So I’m not surprised.’’
Yet while his company pushed the envelope — with branding and marketing and slogans often deemed risky, if not downright controversial, befitting the eccentric genius — Knight remains curiously aloof. He is worth $58 billion, but when the phone rings for this interview, the number displayed belongs to his wife, Penny, not to some otherwise anonymous assistant.
Not surprisingly, then, he often works in the shadows. He could convene a news conference tomorrow and get more than a few nibblers eager to hear his take on any number of hot topics — and he has opinions on all of them. On realignment: “It’s a real danger. We could wind up with four eight-team leagues, just like the NFL. Then what?” On NIL: “We want to see what we’re getting into.’’ On the Pac-12: “I’m worried.’’ On NCAA Tournament expansion: “Why would they want to change it? It’s perfect the way it is.’’
But it’s because he’s not in front of the microphones stumping and stewing that people assume his involvement is a little more insidious, nefarious even — as if Knight is a puppet master, pulling strings to suit his own wishes.
Plenty have questioned the power of the shoe companies — particularly after the 2017 FBI investigation into college basketball corruption (Knight is quick to point out that those charged and ultimately jailed did not work for Nike) — and plenty more have fretted about the interference of boosters across the spectrum of college athletics.
Knight was and is involved to this day. One former Pac-12 official, for example, credits Knight with the germ of the idea that grew into the Pac-12 global. “It was his idea to go to China,’’ says the insider, who asked to not be identified since he is no longer with the league. But there is a notion that Knight does more than make suggestions; that he, in fact, uses his money to get what he wants. An example: In 2016, ESPN reported that Knight, desperate for an Oregon title, was willing to pay $10 million annually for the right football coach.
There is no denying Knight’s affinity for his alma mater. It is evident in the brick and mortar of the Knight Law Center, Knight Library and Knight Arena on the campus, as well as the Phil and Penny Knight campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. He donated $500 million to get that project going in 2016, and another $500 million last year. He’s endowed some 30 professorships and fellowships.
Knight does not argue that much of how he views the state of college athletics is through a green-and-gold tinted prism. He is worried about conference realignment in the macro, and says as much, but he also adds, “Oregon is sitting out there in the in-between right now.’’
Twelve years ago when Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens arrived from the University of Kentucky, he had no prior relationship with Knight. He makes no apologies for ranking a relationship with the school’s biggest booster as one of his top priorities. In the years since, Mullens says, he has used Knight as a frequent sounding board and credits him with helping the school rethink its branding (going with the O logo) and taking a Joey Harrington billboard all the way to Times Square.
But there is a huge chasm between sounding board and puppet master. “He’s no helicopter parent,’’ Krzyzewski says. Asked about the overarching opinion that Knight pulls the strings to his department, Mullens chuckles. “I’ve heard that a lot,’’ he says. “And it is 100 percent false. He loves this place. He is extremely passionate about it. But I probably call him 10 times for every one he calls me. He is never demanding. He just wants to help us, and has been a great partner for us. To have access to his wisdom is a huge, huge benefit.’’
Let’s be honest: If Knight’s voice resonated the way people think it does, Oregon already would have bullied its way into a new conference, or the Pac-12 would have solidified replacements for USC and UCLA. That neither has happened speaks to where the power grid lies. That leaves Knight, frankly, with a bunch of other Everyday Joes and Janes — frustrated, disappointed and concerned with where college athletics is headed, but in no position to change it. “I’ve called a lot of people I know — athletic directors, conference commissioners — and I can say my total impact so far has been zero,’’ he says. “It’s a complete mystery to me. I’m not sure where it’s going.’’
That might seem a bitter pill to swallow for a man Krzyzewski terms a “one of a kind in terms of his impact on college sports.’’ Knight, though, doesn’t sound bitter for being left out. He sounds aggrieved that all of this is happening. He bemoans the death of rivalries and frets about the future of both Olympic sports and women’s sports, which will be forced to crisscross the country to cater to football. If he is angry at anything or anyone, it is at the NCAA for its black hole of leadership. “In fairness, the college commissioners, their job is to make the most money for where they sit, for their members,’’ he says. “They’re not looking out for the good of the game. That falls in the lap of the NCAA, and that void, that’s where everyone chips in. It’s whoever has the loudest voice, and right now that’s the TV networks.’’
Asked if he wants to fill that void, and throw his hat into the ring for the open NCAA president job, Knight lets out a big laugh. “Yeah, right,’’ he says. “That’s the biggest laugh of the day.’’
If Knight — or by extension, Nike — wanted to underwrite change in college athletics right now, it could. Knight might not be able to bully Oregon into a new conference, but the company could rewrite the bottom line of NIL. The coaching contract the company gave to Krzyzewski ultimately dovetailed into full departmental deals with schools — as of this year, Nike sponsored 109 schools, including those with Jordan Brand, per the Sports Business Journal. NIL presents a whole new potential shift.
Nike, however, has been purposefully cautious in the first year-plus of NIL. It has signed just four college athletes to date (UCLA soccer player Reilyn Turner, Stanford golfer Rachel Heck, Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark and Stanford guard Haley Jones) plus three high school basketball players, DJ Wagner and JuJu Watkins — the top players in the boys and girls Class of 2023, respectively — and Bronny James, LeBron’s son.
Though Knight is no longer involved in the company’s day-to-day decisions, he certainly knows the corporate approach. Right now it is probably best described as a holding pattern. Nike will be judicious in its selections, in part because no one knows exactly how this will all flesh out, but largely because NIL decisions, while all the rage, are, at the end of the day, business decisions. They need to be made smartly.
Nike’s marketing genius lies in capitalizing on the right person with the right campaign, not flooding the market with volume. It has been strategic and purposeful, even with more established professional athletes. Knight can’t imagine that changing with college, let alone high school, players. “There’s not many of them that would be big enough, really,’’ he says. “Some of the athletes you’re seeing right now getting the big money thrown at them? I think there will be some regret. It’s just too early. To me, being choosy is the right approach.’’
Krzyzewski has a fitness center named after him on Nike’s Portland campus. A child development center bears C. Vivian Stringer’s name. Folks report to work at the Mia Hamm Office Building, and Serena Williams’ name is attached to a space that would cover 140 tennis courts.
Nike’s decision to name its buildings after famous athletes is meant as a tribute, cap tip and thank you to the people whose star power has helped grow the business. But when Krzyzewski visits, he can’t help but think about the man he’s called a friend for three-plus decades and look at the names a little differently.
“He feels deeply for sport,’’ Krzyzewski says of Knight. “He has those buildings. It’s about the athletes. He admires them. He marvels at their performance. He has such respect and admiration for them. That’s really what he is all about. He’s a fan.’’
A fan who might have more money, more influence and more contacts than the casual observer but still has the same basic concern: Phil Knight would like to know where college athletics is headed. The question, though, is anyone listening?
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Brian Murphy, Steve Dykes, James Squire / Getty Images)
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