Nike’s PR team is scrambling after a college basketball star injured himself wearing the company’s shoes.
The episode occurred in a game between the archrivals Duke and North Carolina. Zion Williamson, a Duke freshman, pivoted with the ball above the foul line, and the sheer force of his 285-pound frame and acrobatic versatility appeared to cut the shoe almost in two, as though severed by a sharp knife.
Williamson limped off the court. Hearts sank everywhere. Obama visibly mouthed “his shoe broke.” And in mere seconds, Nike was facing a marketing nightmare. The offending shoes were stashed away by a trainer. But the images of the young star being felled by his footwear couldn’t be erased.
The New York Times reported:
As the scene was replayed on countless highlight shows on Thursday, the damaged shoe threatened to become a nightmare for Nike, which pays tens of millions to elite college sports programs to be the exclusive sponsor for teams and supplier of their footwear.
Williamson was wearing Nike’s PG 2.5, which retails for $110. The shoe was designed for Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Paul George, who has a $5.5 million shoe deal with Nike, which will be a major player in the crowded competition to ink Williamson to an apparel contract once he declares for the NBA Draft.
Images of Williamson’s discarded sneakers sitting underneath his chair on the Duke bench were shown repeatedly after Williamson left the floor and the school announced he would not return. The reaction to Williamson’s injury and his shoe blowout came at a fast and furious pace.
Videos of both Williamson falling and Obama’s reaction also made the rounds online:
Zion's shoe: destroyed 😳 pic.twitter.com/LqQ2te0Jay
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 21, 2019
“His shoe broke.”
President Barack Obama knew what was happening as soon as Zion Willamson went down
— SB Nation (@SBNation) February 21, 2019
The fallout for the world’s largest sportswear brand was immediate. Twitter lit up with jabs from fans and rival brands, making “Zion” and “Nike” trending topics within the social-media network. The company’s stock fell as much as 1.8 percent in New York trading Thursday.
Twitter users unleashed their snark on Nike:
Nike executives while watching the Zion Williamson shoe fail. pic.twitter.com/HBvOkTxN1m
— Jason Hand (@jayhand) February 22, 2019
— Matt Mammolenti (@mattmammo11) February 22, 2019
— AAPL & DunkinCoffee (@Dunkin__Coffee) February 22, 2019
Nike HQ right now… pic.twitter.com/avnmonrd56
— Jack (@iVisenya) February 21, 2019
A few brand managers ridiculed the footwear and apparel brand on Twitter, as well:
Yo @Nike, you guys need a beer?
— Buffalo Wild Wings (@BWWings) February 21, 2019
We'll even pick up the tab on it. Or, if it makes you feel better, we can just split it down the middle.
— Checkers & Rally's (@CheckersRallys) February 21, 2019
Sports Illustrated tweeted this video:
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 21, 2019
In it, the publication says:
“When you’re done with your workout and want to relax, simply plant your foot hard and go. Only some of your shoe will come with you. It’s the most versatile shoe on the market—making up for any knee discomfort with convenience.”
A Nike rival also jumped on the bandwagon, but then rethought its decision.
… Puma basketball’s Twitter account tweeted at 9:27 p.m. ET, “Wouldn’t have happened in the pumas”
… Puma wasn’t alone in piling on Nike, but it apparently thought better about the tweet because it was deleted.
As backlash rose, Nike quickly gave a terse statement to reporters:
“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”
Aside from the statement, Nike has remained silent.
After an MRI exam Thursday, Williamson was diagnosed with a Grade 1 right knee sprain, and he is listed as day-to-day. Williamson was wearing the Nike PG 2.5, a Paul George-themed model.
—If Williamson is picked outside of the NBA draft lottery because of the knee injury, he could reportedly cash in an $8 million loss of value insurance policy.
The extent of the injury and Williamson’s star status in college basketball makes Nike’s PR crisis more severe, and several publications reported the possibility of the company facing a lawsuit for the accident.
A sneaker coming apart during such a highly-anticipated game on national TV would normally be bad publicity, but its impact was exacerbated by the fact it involved college basketball’s biggest star.
Williamson is a generational talent and is almost certain to be selected with the first overall pick in this year’s NBA draft. Should his injury turn out to be worse than expected, Nike could potentially even face legal actions from both the player and Duke.
Mario Natarelli, managing partner at the MBLM brand agency in New York told CBS News the incident was a “very visible shoe structure failure for a company committed to performance and technology of its products”.
Analysts added the malfunction might hurt the firm’s ability to sign Williamson once he goes pro – a deal that would potentially be worth millions.
However, analysts said that Nike should be able to recover from its current reputational nightmare.
Despite the finger-pointing that has been directed at Nike in the hours following since Williamson’s injury, industry experts don’t expect the company to suffer long-term damage to its brand. Nike holds lucrative shoe deals with many of college basketball’s biggest programs, including Duke, which extended its contract with Nike 10 years in 2017. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the manufacturer has a $173.8 million deal in place at Michigan.
How would you advise Nike to respond, PR Daily readers?
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