304. Nike Abandons Cleveland.
Jul 10, 2010 at 12:51PM

Perhaps you have seen or heard a little bit about Lebron James leaving his current team and signing with two other famous players in Miami. It was a fairly understated and subtle affair, so if you missed it that's quite understandable. To get you caught up, James was a free agent and kept everyone guessing up until the last moment as to whether he would stay with his hometown team, The Cleveland Cavaliers, or leave for any number of other teams; The New York Knicks, The Los Angeles Clippers, The Miami Heat or The New Jersey Nets. Teams had been planning for James' free agency for two even three years, saving money and dumping contracts so they'd have a shot at the star player. Free agency is a pretty standard aspect of modern professional sports. What was not standard was James sending out misinformation and then launching a one-hour special dedicated only to announce this decision. The special show that aired on ESPN on Thursday was even called The Decision, smacking of the over-hyped ridiculous self-importance that is all too prevalent in sports. It was anything but classy.

Most astute fans knew that Lebron was going to face scrutiny after the show no matter what he decided. By making a spectacle of the announcement he was causing undue problems for himself. Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk said it best, "He either ends up on national television to break Cleveland's heart, or he has an hour-long special on himself to say he is going nowhere. Both options have public relations problems to deal with."

Lebron's (and Nike's) Billboard being taken down in Cleveland:
AP Photo/Mark Duncan

What is not being talked about is the effect on Nike. More specifically: Lebron James has been Nike basketball for years now, somewhat taking Jordan's place as the brand's icon. Since Lebron is leaving Cleveland for Miami, there is also the appearance that Nike is leaving Cleveland. All those images of Cleveland fans burning James' shoes and jerseys and posters and t-shirts are also images of fans burning Nike's brand. How can the discontent of millions of midwestern basketball fans not spill over onto the most visible part of Lebron James' persona, that of Nike spokesperson? Lebron has abandoned Cleveland and Nike may have as well. At least that is the common perspective on things.

Nike Witness T-shirt On Wednesday:

Nike Witness T-shirt On Thursday:

When I saw the image of the We Are All Witnesses Nike billbaord featuring #23 being torn down on ESPN this morning, it became pretty clear that Nike's presence in Cleveland is being torn down as well. The fact that there has been so much backlash for how The Decision (sic) was handled, means that the actions of the sponsored has dirtied that of sponsor simply by association. I'm surprised someone in Nike's camp didn't throw themselves in front of this dumb idea for a show and prevent such bad publicity. Now they are facing the same public ire that the player is - after all, Nike was the lens through which most fans experienced James. Yes, we all witnessed what happened this week and are feeling pretty ugly about it. As a matter of fact the We Are All Witnesses campaign has become a point of parody for fans to communicate their disgust. Chants of Witness Disloyalty or Witness A Traitor can probably be heard today ringing down not just the streets of Cleveland but throughout a lot of other B-level cities in America.

We All Witnessed It Alright:
Source: AP Photo/The Plain Dealer,Marvin Fong

So what is Nike to do? Do they sponsor another player that comes to Cleveland and try to fill that gap? That would be next to impossible as James cast a pretty large shadow especially since the town felt like they had raised James since high school. Does Nike just lay low and let this story die down? I feel like that is giving an opportunity to other marketers to do some timely marketing of their own. Were I Adidas or Reebok (heck And 1 or Under Armor) I would take this chance and respond in some way using clever advertising and try to endear fans (not just in Cleveland) to their brand instead.

You can't separate Lebron (The LJ23 King icon) and Nike. Although I do look forward to the future design around his new number six.

Maybe Nike works with Lebron and does something classy, publicly thanking Cleveland fans for all that they've done for him over the years? There is a big risk of that feeling insincere, especially while Bosh, Wade and James sign contacts and dance gleefully in front of the Miami fans and a worldwide audience - which has been going on for the last two days as of this article's writing. As Rob Shuster said in ESPN's Bill Simmons' latest mailbag article: "(What Lebron did is) Like dangling an engagement ring in front of your longtime girlfriend, then getting on your knee at the bar and proposing to a girl you met last week. (We're) Completely destroyed." All of this sponsored by Nike albeit indirectly.

It's going to be difficult to Fill Lebron's Void:

We've seen the risks of focusing one's brand on a single player's persona. If that player runs into trouble with the law, your brand looks bad. If it turns out that the player has a little trouble staying faithful to his wife, your brand is aligned with that. And if your star decides to stick a knife in the back of an entire region of the country in the most visible manner possible, your brand is aligned with that too. I will argue that the last scenario is by far the stickiest because it is oddly somehow less forgivable. Some will say that Lebron James is a symbol for all that is wrong with sports. Sport is now about money and economy over fans and loyalty. It's about long-term lucrative contracts over only slightly less long and barely less lucrative contracts. It's more about business and less about the game. And guess who some people are going to blame for this? The big time advertisers and Nike in this particular instance. They will be seen as part of the problem in sports and ironically that's really bad business for the brand. Will Anyone in Cleveland buy a pair of Nikes again at least without wincing like an abused dog?

It's not like Lebron is doing this quietly:

Yes Lebron James left Cleveland. And he took Nike with him. Now what? This is a question I'm betting is being tossed around the halls of agency Wieden + Kennedy and in Beaverton, Oregon where Nike is headquartered.

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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