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"Generally, Nike doesn't rest on their laurels. They think of something new," says Sam Poser, a senior research analyst at Sterne Agee, a brokerage firm. "They'll be satisfied for a little while, and then someone asks, 'How can we do it better? What's the new thing?'"
The EYBL is the new thing, and it has also revolutionized the marketing of travel-team basketball. After Nike recruiter Sonny Vaccaro, widely credited as the first man to bring shoe company sponsorships to the AAU level, signed Michael Jordan and turned the swoosh into a juggernaut, shoe companies' strategy was: bankroll a travel team so that it draws top players, connect with a promising player at a young age, build a relationship by sending him gear, push him toward a college affiliated with the brand to maintain the relationship, and then hope that he signs with the company if he makes it big.
That strategy recently changed. Nike doesn't have to wait for one of its kids to become the next Michael Jordan anymore. Nike already has Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker.
"Those high school kids are brands today," says Don Yeager, co-author of Sole Influence, which first illuminated shoe companies' pull on amateur basketball in the '90s. "Where before they were hoping to influence where they went to college so they could become brands, now they're already brands."
Nike has adapted to and benefited from this new paradigm. The company is able to hone its resources, funding and hyping those 40 elite teams, those 400 or so top ballers with media followings and much-Googled names. (Nike did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
"In the past they used to cast a wide net. They went from being a shotgun to being a rifle in their approach to targeting kids," says George Dohrmann, who shadowed a Southern California travel team for most of the last decade while writing his book Play Their Hearts Out (and who first made the AAU/Kleenex analogy).
Within a few days, dozens of highlights from the local weekend session will pop up around the Internet: uploaded onto YouTube, tweeted with a #EYBL hashtag, posted on the Oakland Soldiers' Facebook page, which has more than 5,000 likes. All this sharing will help satiate fans' desire to track the progression of the country's next generation of NBA stars. It's a viral marketing strategy, says Dohrmann, one that blurs the line between branding and reality. Unlike, say, college football bowl sponsorships, Nike isn't just affiliated with the event; Nike is the event.
"What sponsors are looking for is to be woven into the cultural fabric in these fundamental ways," says Matt McAllister, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the evolution of corporate branding in sports. "This is an extension of sponsorship activities that we've seen for the last 20 years."
After the Soldiers beat Chicago's Meanstreets on the second day of the session, a cameraman and a producer call Gordon and Bird over for an interview. Nike contracted with these guys to record footage for a new web series called "The Circuit." The YouTube channel describes the show as "a behind-the-scenes series following the greatest high school basketball stars through their grueling summer travel schedule on the Nike EYBL circuit." Posters on the Dream Courts' walls remind people to "Follow us on Twitter @EYBL2012."
A few feet from the court, Gordon's mom, Shelly, looks on. She shakes her head and grins as she contemplates the spectacle of it all. "I'm always a little bit flabbergasted that people spend so much time worrying about 16-year-old boys," she says.
Her 16-year-old son happens to be a basketball prodigy. A YouTube video titled "Aaron Gordon is the NASTIEST player in the country!!!" has garnered more than 100,000 views. The video was edited by Travis Faris, whose production company, Yay Area's Finest, creates highlight reels for many of the region's high school basketball stars. Olivier was so impressed with Faris' work that he invited him to travel with the team.
A recent Yay Area's Finest video titled "Soldiers Go UNDEFEATED in Minnesota!!! 1st Session of the 2012 EYBL" begins in an airport, where Bird speaks to the camera. On a chair behind him is a black Nike duffel bag. A few seconds later, stills of the venue set the context. Flashing on the screen to the beat of the background music: an orange nylon barricade featuring a swoosh and "EYBL"; a black banner featuring a swoosh and "Basketball"; a black sign featuring a swoosh and "Elite Youth Basketball League." And then Aaron Gordon slams in an alley-oop.
Long before the YouTube clips and the college recruiting websites and LeBron James, back in the Soldiers' first summer, the program's co-founders Calvin Andrews and Hashim Alauddeen, a pair of El Cerrito High School grads, weren't even sure how they'd be able to pay for the team's trip to a Las Vegas tournament. While Alauddeen drove the packed van nine hours from Richmond, Andrews stayed back, frantically working to close a $1,000 deficit.
That was back in 1990. Alauddeen was a 21-year-old African Diaspora studies major at UC Berkeley. Andrews was selling phone systems in South San Francisco, his first job after graduating from Montana State University, where he was a scholarship basketball player and business major. And the Soldiers were a hard-nosed bunch scraped together from Richmond rec centers and playgrounds. "At-risk" kind of kids, says Alauddeen.