Will Zion Williamson’s busted shoe negatively impact Nike?


Any time the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels meet on the basketball court, it’s a high profile affair. On Wednesday, the two North Carolina schools, located just 10 miles apart from one another, played in what was the biggest matchup in sports this week, and, arguably, the biggest collegiate basketball game of the season up until this point. No. 1 ranked Duke, led by freshman phenom Zion Williamson, the expected No. 1 pick in the coming NBA Draft, hosted No. 8 Carolina.

Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium was packed to the rafters, with tickets reselling for an average of $3,296 on the secondary market website President Barack Obama sat courtside. And most of the sporting world was tuned in to or keeping up with the game.   

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All were ready to take in the match up, but just 36 seconds into the contest the excitement was gone.

Williamson, at the top of the key, tried to create some separation from his defender. He juked right, but as he tried to stop and shift his weight back to the left, his right shoe inexplicably came apart at the sole. Williamson slipped, grabbed his left knee, and left the game with an injury.

The Tar Heels went on to claim an 88-72 win on their archrival’s home court, but the upset was secondary in everyone’s thoughts. Williamson’s health and the response by Nike, one of the biggest sporting goods companies in the world and supplier of athletic equipment for Duke’s athletic teams.

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Nike came to global prominence in the 1980s when they signed basketball star Michael Jordan to an exclusive contract. They developed the Air Jordan, a signature shoe, which flew out of retail stores as the player excelled on the court, won slam dunk contests, and led his team, the Chicago Bulls, to six NBA championships. Even though he hasn’t played an NBA game since 2003, the Air Jordan brand is still the biggest player-related sports brand in the world.

While Jordan didn’t start the trend of signature footwear for sports stars, it exploded after Nike reached unimaginable success with the brand. Soon, every athletic footwear company and rising NBA player looked for shoe deals and the financial windfalls that came along with them. The partnerships have been good for professional players and the athletic goods companies, who soon looked for exclusive sponsorships to outfit collegiate athletic programs. Duke is one of the schools sponsored by Nike, so it was alarming to see the best player in college basketball go down because of a shoe that failed what it was specifically designed to do.

Williams suffered a knee sprain and his availability to return is being checked day-to-day. Many are arguing that he, as a financially uncompensated player – except for his university scholarship, room and board – should not play the remainder of the season in an effort to protect himself, his likely high draft position, and potential professional earnings. Some in the NBA are even arguing doing away with the recently implemented rule that requires a year between the time a player graduates or leaves high school and joins the professional ranks.

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The optics of the shoe failure are a PR nightmare for the Oregon-based company. No company wants its products associated with causing an injury, much less a catastrophic injury that has the possibility to end a career before it begins.

There is, of course, speculation that Duke and Williamson could have legal cases against Nike if the player is hurt and he or the team is impacted as a result of the blown-out shoe. At this point, it is a wait and see game.

With stock markets closed on President’s Day, Nike’s stock this week peaked on Tuesday at $84.95 a share. It dipped to $83.42 shortly after trading began on Thursday, but had rebounded to $84.78 by Friday morning.

That short fall and quick rebound are telling. Being that this is the one of the only high profile occurrences of a Nike athletic shoe being defective, it looks like investors are shrugging their shoulders and giving the company the benefit of the doubt. Nike has a stable of superstars in their shoes, and the company has given each of them millions of reasons to keep the “swoosh” on their apparel.

At this point another shoe company may land a deal with Williamson, but don’t expect a major change in Nike’s modus operandi. With their marketing know-how, they may even be able to spin this black eye with a humorous commercial campaign featuring Williamson in a scientific lab doing quality control on his new line of shoes.

For the good of the game, I hope Williamson isn’t too terribly hurt, that the 88-72 loss Duke suffered is the worst of it, and that he can return to the court in time for March 9, the newest biggest game of the college basketball season, when Duke travels up Tobacco Road for their annual rematch with UNC.



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