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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Updated: November 20, 8:34 AM ET
Adu could grow soccer's popularity and Nike's wallet

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

For those who doubted Nike when the company signed Tiger Woods to a five-year, $40 million deal in 1996 or laughed at the absurdity of LeBron James' seven-year contract worth $100 million, try criticizing "Swoosh" executives for the signing of 14-year old Freddy Adu.

In a deal that could one day be compared to the five-year, $2.5 million the shoe giants agreed to pay Michael Jordan in 1984, Adu's multi-year deal is worth only $1 million.

Freddy Adu
In signing Freddy Adu, Nike has not only formed an alliance with a good soccer player, it has found another great face -- literally.

Soccer in America isn't golf and certainly isn't basketball, but if Adu emerges as an icon whose play can draw those who were previously indifferent about the sport, there's plenty of money to be made in his rise to the top.

Nike is currently the only major company tied to Adu because they were willing to give him cash when his future wasn't clear. Unlike many that approached Adu about doing business with him, Nike didn't care if he played in the MLS or internationally.

"One of the reasons he signed in May was because when it was determined that he was going to go pro, he wanted to have a certain level of financial security," said Adu's agent Richard Motzkin. "The Nike contract allowed him to focus on what was best for his future instead of what was best for his immediate situation."

Adu is much like LeBron James in his handling of all the pressure that has come his way.

His on-the-field credentials are well documented, but on Wednesday, as Major League Soccer announced that Adu will play for the league's D.C. United team for at least the next four years, the teenager's mature off-the-field attributes glowed.

He answered questions from the media like a veteran and at least didn't admit to feeling the strain of all the focus on him.

"I'm not really worried about all this hype and media attention," said Adu, who bought his first suit at a Manhattan department store on Tuesday for the news conference. "I play soccer because I love the sport, I have fun doing it, and I don't want any of this tension to get my head. That's why for the most part, you just got to keep the smile on your face and remember why you love the sport."

In a five-minute speech of thank you's upon the announcing of his contract, Adu went up without a piece of paper.

"I'd like to point out the 46-year-old commissioner needed notes, but the 14-year-old Freddy didn't," MLS commissioner Don Garber joked after Adu sat down.

Nike has not only formed an alliance with a good soccer player, it has found another great face -- literally.

Adu, who moved from Ghana to Maryland in 1997, has a golden grin and perfect teeth that might make Nike consider getting into the tooth-bleaching product category.

"We are confident and very certain that Freddy brings a tremendous excitement to the game and we're excited for his future in the sport," said Nike spokesman Dave Mingey, who noted that the company has yet to devise a complete marketing plan for the 14-year-old.

Nike founder Phil Knight has made no secret of his expectations of Adu. In an interview in early June with a Portland sports radio show, Knight told the hosts that Adu could have a larger impact on Nike than LeBron James, in that Adu could help grow his sport in the United States more than James' could do with his.

Adu told ESPN.com that he dreams of having his own shoe, something Nike has done recently for both Mia Hamm and Ronaldo.

"I think Nike anticipates that Freddy Adu will be to men's soccer what Mia Hamm has been to women's soccer," said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis.

But Frank Vuono, a sports marketer for 16W Marketing, said "there is little precedent that shows that Nike could make significant money in soccer spikes."

One challenge the company might have in the apparel wars with other soccer brands is that Adu will play with D.C. United, a team whose uniform is made by adidas.

LeBron James wears a Reebok-made uniform, but the Reebok logo does not appear on the jersey. Adidas' logo does have a visible presence on the United's uniform.

"He's going to be wearing Nike boots on the field all the time and off the field he'll be hanging out in Nike shoes and apparel," Motzkin said. "He'll be no different than any other player -- including Landon Donovan with Bayern Leverkusen -- who has had shoe deals in the past that conflicted with their team uniform deal.

Although Adu won't technically be drafted until Jan. 16, 2004, the fact that he has a contract makes it possible for MLS to market his jerseys right away, said Mark Noonan, executive vice president of marketing for MLS.

"He will be one, if not the most popular players in the league right off the bat," Noonan said. "And as he continues to improve on the field, hopefully he will grow and there will be some substance to the enormous attention that he has been receiving."

Vuono said the fact that Adu will be wearing adidas' jerseys will not be a problem.

"Most kids are more aware of the brand of shoes that athletes are wearing than the brand of the jersey," Vuono said.

Besides, Nike has rights to the U.S. National Team jersey and Adu might work his way onto the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Cup squads.

Adu is already a responsible spokesman  he sported a brown and tan Nike jumpsuit on ESPNews  and while he says he's in no rush to spend money, he wants to get one more endorsement deal as soon as possible.

"I love video games," Adu said. "I wouldn't mind being one of those EA Sports guys."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.