Fourteen Aprils ago, Nike benefited from arguably the most fortuitous moment of brand exposure in sports history, courtesy of Tiger Woods.
The world’s greatest golfer created immeasurable value for Nike at the 2005 Masters when his incredible final-round chip at No. 16 hung on the edge of the cup—Nike Swoosh logo showing—before tumbling into the hole as he pushed toward winning yet another green jacket. It was an unforgettable sports moment, and the ever-present Swoosh will forever be associated with it.
Now imagine that instead of seeing that Nike logo rotate one last time, Woods’ ball trickled up to the hole and then crumbled into pieces just as it was about to fall in for the critical birdie that helped force a playoff against Chris DiMarco. That would have been the equivalent of the public relations nightmare that occurred for Nike NKE -1.67% in Wednesday’s Duke-North Carolina game.
About 30 seconds into the most hyped regular-season college basketball game in years, Duke star Zion Williamson attempted to plant his left foot, only to have his Nike PG 2.5 sneaker split at the seams, with Williamson’s foot bursting through the enormous hole.
Williamson, widely projected as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, fell awkwardly to the floor while grasping his right knee. And suddenly everything changed.
Williamson walked off the floor under his own power but did not return to the game. Without its Superman, the nation’s No. 1 team looked entirely fallible, and the rowdy Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd fell unusually quiet. No. 8 North Carolina took command in Williamson’s absence and maintained a comfortable lead throughout the second half of its 88-72 win.
As gigantic as that win was in the ACC race and in the greater scheme of this college basketball season, the unforgettable image of the evening will forever be Williamson writhing on the court while clutching his injured knee, the Nike logo visible on the bottom of the one shoe that remained intact.
It was the anti-Woods moment, and it could be costly.
Based upon the $250,000 ad rate for a 30-second commercial in the 2005 Masters, Nike execs estimated that the two-second glimpse of Woods’ ball turning over into the hole was worth $16,666 each time the legendary clip was shown. By the 60th replay, it was already a million-dollar shot in terms of exposure for the Nike brand, and it has been shown on TV thousands of times since then.
Sports marketing expert Paul Swangard told the Associated Press after Woods’ historic Masters chip-in that the marketing “Shangri-La is always unforgettable moments in sports that are linked to your brand. This was one of those moments.”
Well, if that was Shangri-La for Nike, this was something more like hell.
This should have been a showcase event for the Nike brand. Two Nike programs, both ranked in the top 10, playing on ESPN at one of the nation’s most storied basketball venues. The leading candidate for national player of the year honors carrying his team into what would probably be his only home game in the Duke-UNC rivalry. President Obama in the house.
A few hours before tipoff, the cheapest ticket on the secondary market was available for the low, low price of $2,137.50—close to what it would have cost to get into this year’s Super Bowl. This was entirely due to Williamson’s presence, as TickPick marketing strategist Kyle Zorn explained to ESPN earlier this week.
“As far as Duke this year, I haven’t seen anything like this,” Zorn said, pointing out that the only other athlete who can similarly impact ticket prices is NBA superstar LeBron James.
In the aftermath of Williamson’s injury, the blowback was immediate for Nike, and even for Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George, whose signature Nike shoe was on Williamson’s foot at the time of the accident.
Nike’s brand name was quickly plastered all over social media, with fans lambasting the company for producing such a low-quality product that it would literally crumble off the foot of the most prominent player in the sport.
Rival shoe brand Puma even got in on the act, posting a now-deleted tweet saying Williamson’s injury “wouldn’t have happened in the Pumas.”
The good news for Nike, at least for now, is that it does not appear to be a season-ending issue. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in his post-game press conference that Williamson suffered a mild knee sprain but added that the knee was stable. Krzyzewski said Williamson would be out for an indefinite amount of time, although he seemed confident that his freshman star would be back on the court before the season ends.
Even if Williamson eventually returns, the stink of this PR disaster seems sure to linger, at least for a while. The next few days, at minimum, are guaranteed to be unpleasant for the Nike brand.