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The ’reputational effects’ on Nike as a result of the ‘exploding sneaker’ of Zion Williamson

The emotional equity of sports is associated with the power to direct people’s attention and attract the focus of eyeballs on and off the playing field. March Madness is around the corner and college basketball is followed by millions of people across different platforms. For instance, ESPN reports that last Wednesday’s (20th of Feb. 2019) game between no. 8 ranked North Carolina (UNC) and no. 1 ranked Duke featured a 3.2 overnight rating. This rating ranks as no. 3 when it comes to the highest rated college basketball games in the regular season and the highest rated game of the 2018-2019 college basketball season across all broadcasting channels while being supplemented by the contagious ability of sports to spread even further and quicker then ever before due to streaming opportunities and social media platforms[1].

The table below shows an illustration of the five highest ranked markets, which all set records for the season (ESPN, 2019).

Rank Market Rating
1 Raleigh-Durham 13.0
2 Greensboro-High Point 12.0
3 Charlotte 11.0
4 Louisville 9.5
5 Norfolk 8.8

One competitive advantage of the business of sports compared to many other industries is the emotional equity, which is linked to the high identification with athletes and sports teams and the passionate loyalty expressed in the consumption process. The YouTube video below (seen by well over 1 million people) portrays how millions of people engage with sports events and how teams and athletes excel or fail when being caught in dramatic, extraordinary or surprising scenarios on the playing field. The UNC vs. Duke game included many of the tribal fandom aspects, which were activated significantly by the dramatic and unscripted incident when Duke star player Zion Williamson fell to the ground with a sprained knee due to his exploding Nike sneaker. The incident emphasized the contextual framework in modern elite sports in portraying a reality where the narratives go beyond the playing field and where the influence of money has increased (as seen in the Tweets below). Consequently, the power of fans, media, sponsors and other stakeholders produces an interesting junction that is highly dynamic and where there may be a thin line between success or failure in similarity with the game on the playing field. For example, the live and viral effects of the ‘exploding sneaker’ had immediate reputational effects for Nike. Most noteworthy, Nikes market value took an instant hit on the stock market. The costly devaluation comes from Nike being blamed for Zion Williamson’s injury.



Harvard Business School Professor Stephen A. Greyser, who is renowned expert on branding and in the business of sports shared his expertise in the analysis on the situation and points out that “the key impact for Nike is on the reputational side”. However, he points to Nike benefitting from a position with a good level of product consistency, quality and a product portfolio tied to strong research and innovation in stating that “the essence of the Nike brand is ‘consistent high performance’ when it comes to the track record of the brand concerning product quality and research and development but there are some important dimensions that are threatened by this incident.” In elaborating on these dimensions Professor Greyser adds the attention grabbing nature of sports displayed above in mentioning that “the event had very high visibility by audience size and the vitality of star players, e.g., Zion Williamson. There were many replays and visibility on other platforms (e.g., digital platforms) but Nike’s strong track record over time provides some reputational buffer/reservoir.” On top of this, Nike should assess what caused this incident. Professor Greyser emphasizes that “Nike must explore as if they were in the research and development phase and figure out what caused this incident. Nike must also figure out if it is remediable. It would also be advisable to engage in intensive consumer and user research to identify analogous experiences. I would also recommend that Nike should pause and withhold this model footwear especially for elite athletes while they are finding a solution”.


For further inspiration, the podcast below features Kenneth Cortsen engaging in a dialogue with Harvard Business School Professor Stephen A. Greyser, who was kind enough to share his wealth of experiences regarding the branding of sports. Tune into the podcast and listen to Professor Greyser’s perspectives on the reputational effects on Nike and Zion Williamson while also gaining insights into how Nike’s brand activities during last night’s Oscar show on television positions the brand.

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