Nike’s Billion Dollar Issue

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Should the company be worried?

Nike held an event unveiling the revamped jerseys for each team. Photo via YouTube.

One of the bigger storylines of the NBA offseason (one that was littered with massive contract signings) was that Nike was taking over as the league’s official uniform supplier. This was a title previously held by Adidas, but their contract ended at the conclusion of the 2016–17 NBA season. When announced in 2015 that Nike would sign an eight-year, $1 billion deal to regain the status of the league’s official uniform, all eyes were on the brand to see what kind of uniforms it would release.

Leading up to the season, Nike released various new uniforms for all 30 NBA teams. Additionally, they flipped the script on the standard “home” and “away” jerseys. This season, for the first time, the home team would select which jersey it would wear and the visiting team had to select a contrasting color scheme. Each team has four uniforms to choose from.

The uniforms, dubbed “The Association,” “The Icon,” and “The Statement” have all been released, with a fourth variation to be announced in the coming months.

While some organizations remained true to their roots in terms of uniform design, (see Celtics and Lakers) others underwent some pretty drastic redesigns (see Timberwolves). Nike has announced that all teams will get some sort of uniform redesign in the coming years.

Not only have the color scheme and designs been updated, but the materials that make the jerseys have too. These new uniforms are supposed to help the athletes stay on top of their game, while wicking moisture and moving seamlessly while on the court. Staying true to its innovative nature, Nike and the NBA also debuted the Nike Therma Flex Showtime Warm-Up Jacket (the zip-up hoodies seen on players pre-game). These are designed to help the players maintain the right body temperature during warm-ups and during the game.

As has been in the news recently, the issue with these new-and-improved jerseys is that they are ripping. Starting with opening night, LeBron James’ jersey split right between the 2 and 3 on his back. Ben Simmons had his jersey literally ripped off him while attempting a rebound, and a frustrated Kevin Love ripped his own jersey off Hulk Hogan-style (synonymous with the Cavs’ season thus far, right?).

LeBron’s jersey on opening night was the first instance of the new variations ripping. Photo via Sporting News.

In response to these instances, the company provided the following statement to ESPN’s Darren Rovell:

“Nike has always put the athlete at the center of everything we do and we have worked hard to create the most advanced uniforms in the history of the NBA. They are lighter and deliver great mobility and sweat wicking characteristics, and the feedback from players has been overwhelmingly positive. However, during game play we have seen a small number of athletes experience significant jersey tears. We are very concerned to see any game day tear and are working to implement a solution that involves standardizing the embellishment process and enhancing the seam strength of game day jerseys. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance and we are working with the NBA and teams to avoid this happening in the future.”

Now that the company has addressed the tearing issue, it is also are facing another pressing issue that many might not notice. Two of the league’s most well-known (and recently highest paid) players, James Harden and Steph Curry are doing what they can to hide the most well-known logo in the world. Harden, an Adidas athlete, and Curry, the face of Under Armour’s basketball vertical, are doing whatever they can to hide the swoosh from their non-Nike signature shoes.

While they can’t really hide the swoosh that sits on the right side of their uniform tops, they have been taking creative measures to hide, or eliminate it altogether, from their socks. Curry has been seen rolling the cuff of the sock down, while Harden has recently been cutting off the top of his sock altogether.

James Harden has been cutting off the Nike swoosh early on this season. Photo via Brandon Dill/AP.

Hiding the logo of competitor brands is nothing new in professional sports. Team USA Basketball, sponsored by Nike, has been very creative in hiding the non-brand shoes of its members during team photo shoots. While the players are not required to wear Nike shoes during competition, the brand does not want to give its competitors any free advertising.

The MLB’s uniform provider, at least for the next couple years, is Majestic. However, Nike has finagled its way into the uniform by providing undershirts for players, with the swoosh located in just the right spot to be visible at the top of the collar. Many players who have deals with other brands have opted to snip the logo off the shirt creating a V-neck of sorts. Others go so far as literally creating a V-neck or not wearing the undershirt at all. Under Armour is set to take over as MLB’s official uniform supplier in 2019.

While basketball seems to be Nike’s bread and butter in terms of sneaker-market, the jersey issues from ripping to hiding the logo are sure to puzzle executives. The brand certainly isn’t struggling in popularity among NBA players.

LeBron’s signature shoe is now in its 15th version. His lifetime deal with the brand has ensured that one of the game’s greatest will always have a swoosh somewhere on his body. His former teammate Kyrie Irving will likely be releasing his fourth signature shoe in the coming months, with Paul George’s second shoe to follow.

Team USA Basketball in 2016 hiding non-Nike athletes shoes (Kyle Lowry, DeMarcus Cousins and Klay Thompson). Photo via CBS Sports.

One of the sneaker market’s likely highly sought after free agents, Giannis Antetokounmpo, recently signed a deal with the brand as well. Given his MVP-caliber performance and continued growth as the face of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, he is lining himself up for his own signature shoe as well.

The billion-dollar question becomes this: what will Nike do to avoid the negative headlines surrounding its jerseys? With the market share of the Adidas brand skyrocketing recently, is Nike doing enough to maintain its status as the world’s top athletic brand? Luckily, they have some time to figure out the uniform issues before unveiling the fourth edition for teams in the coming months.

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.

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