'Epic fail' won't change Nike, but it could change college sports

'Epic fail' won't change Nike, but it could change college sports
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The casual use of dramatically descriptive words like “epic,” “monumental” and “legendary” should generally be avoided lest they lose their effect and become watered down in their overuse.

But this week’s product failure by Nike seems legitimately characterized as an "epic fail."

During this week’s NCAA basketball game between archrivals Duke University and University of North Carolina (UNC), Duke’s highly touted star player, Zion Williamson (and Nike), made headlines when the Nike PG 2.5 shoe he was wearing literally split open on a play within the first minute of the game, taking Zion out of the game with a sprained knee with no clear word on how long he will be injured.

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In the game of basketball, this is not in itself a groundbreaking event; injuries happen, products fail, games are lost. It’s all part of the sport.

But what is notable is the magnitude of all of the elements of this occurrence and their perfect alignment. It was not unlike the perfect alignment of factors that led to Nike’s very explosion onto the athletic scene in the early 1980s.

Nike, as a brand, had been around since 1971 as a running and all-around athletic shoe (originally founded in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports).

However, it became a major player in the athletic shoe market when it hit a sweet spot with a unique basketball shoe design and a young basketball phenom who was just emerging onto the scene after staring at UNC: Michael Jordan.

Mix this with some drama — as a rookie in the NBA, Jordan received a $5,000 fine per game (reportedly paid by sponsor Nike) for wearing his distinct black and red Air Jordan shoes, which did not conform to the league’s uniformity rules — and fuel it with the hip-hop community’s embrace of the shoe, and you have the sneaker behemoth that we know today.

Since that time, Nike’s strategy has been to focus on a combination of cutting-edge design and high performance, signing the best athletes in each area of sport that it enters.

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Unfortunately for Nike, its product malfunction this week was on full display, as likely No. 1 NBA draft pick Zion Williamson was wearing Nikes during the most storied rivalry in college basketball, with tickets selling for thousands of dollars. 

What's more, the list of celebrities sitting courtside included Spike Lee and President Obama. In this bright spotlight, Nike's shoe literally fell apart.

Although it was a dramatic, much-publicized product failure, Nike is an extremely successful brand that has invested a tremendous amount of money and effort into product design and performance elements, and it has aligned itself with the top performers in sport.

It has also curried favor with its base over the years through strategic moves like its continued support of particular athletes despite their own personal and professional scandals — Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and Colin Kaepernick.

So, although its stock price dropped by 1 percent the day after the debacle, it is unlikely that the Nike brand will suffer or lose significant sales in the long or short term.

It is unlikely that athletes will abandon the brand but, also importantly, most of Nike's growth in recent years has been less from performance athletic sales and more from casual and fashion wear in light of the current trend toward “athleisure” wear.

Nike is so influential that while its brand will likely not take a hit, the episode causes a much bigger shift in the conversation regarding large-scale issues in college basketball, as well as Zion Williamson’s own career.

Fans and professionals are now questioning whether Williamson should continue to play out the year in school and risk further or worse injury, which could jeopardize his draft stock.

This has contributed to highlighting the broader debate over the merits of star players risking injury while finishing school versus going straight to the professional ranks.

It also leads to the heated debate over compensation for college players. While college basketball is a huge business for universities, brands and media, the players have long been denied compensation even though they fill seats, promote brands and sell television time all while risking personal injury.

It can be said that this was one isolated incident, one shoe, one brand, one injury ... but this is Nike. It is arguably the biggest basketball shoe brand out there,  and the incident involved the biggest player in the college game.

Nike's one product fail will not bring down a behemoth brand, but its one product fail may just lead to a shift in Zion Williamson’s career and possibly the business of college athletics.

Marlene Towns is a professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.