Every college under contract with Nike has been let out of its commitment to use Nike baseball bats during the upcoming season.
Of the top 20 teams in home runs last season, not a single one used Nike bats.
Major schools such as Southern Cal, Miami, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky all used Nike bats and experienced major drops in offensive production. Home runs were 20 percent lower and slugging percentages 44 percent lower for those teams than for the rest of the NCAA.
The Tuscaloosa News, which led the reporting on this story, notes the Hurricanes hit an average of more than 93 homers a season between 2008 and 2010, but last season with Nike bats they slammed just 33 dingers. That’s a staggering 64.5 percent drop in power.
Alabama’s power dropped 86.6 percent over the previous three seasons.
Nike is not an equipment company. Nike is an apparel company. They’ve done a good job of convincing us that apparel is just as important to athletic performance (and even recruiting) as equipment, but there’s a reason you don’t see players wearing Louisville Slugger dri-fits. It takes a different set of institutional knowledge and skills to make things like baseball bats.
Of course, Nike does make other equipment, including, perhaps most famously, golf clubs. According to Yahoo!!!, “it’s no mystery that Nike has the most wins right now” on the PGA tour. (That was from four years ago and, I assume, a thinly veiled reference to Tiger Woods.)
Nike is a giant corporation, so it easily could buy a smaller company that already makes bats and rebrand them as its own. It’s unclear if that’s what it has done with its bats, golf clubs, or any of its other products.
None of this definitively (or even convincingly or persuasively) explains why Nike bats appear to be so terrible. Most likely, the explanation has something to do with the recent changes the NCAA is making to deaden bats. Home run numbers were down generally last season, as I recall, and while the article did not discuss a breakout of performance numbers for any other bat manufacturer, the Nike bats appear to have been particularly dead. (Neither did the article discuss any self-selecting bias of those teams that chose to use Nike bats, probably because an investigation along those lines would be particularly convoluted and unfruitful.) For whatever reason, it seems Nike was unable to adapt quickly or as successfully to changing bat regulations as other manufacturers. If it’s true that the other (successful) bat manufacturers focus on bats and bat-related accessories, Nike’s corporate size may be to blame, whether it’s an inability to make and test changes in a short period or a lack of resource commitment to a product that isn’t likely to benefit the Nike brand the way building really high-performance golf clubs for Tiger Woods did. Not to over-glorify the making of baseball bats, because obviously there is measurable distinction between good ones and bad ones, but really, when you think of Nike, do you think of high-performance, technical equipment, or do you think of a brand, a look, a style? I think it’s the latter, and just like the University of Oregon’s uniforms, Nike invests in what’s going to bring more people to Nike, and college baseball bats don’t do that.