'You would think Nike has to sign him' – How Zion Williamson's shoe fiasco could be a boon for him

Dan WetzelColumnist

Could that busted-up Nike that injured Zion Williams on Wednesday – causing no less than Barack Obama to declare, “His shoe broke” – wind up actually making the Duke forward a lot of money?

Probably, at least as long he recovers fully from what Duke is describing as a mild sprain of his right knee. There is no timetable on his return.

In strictly business terms, this might actually be a boon for Williamson. All you need to know is that soon after the incident, Puma’s Twitter account offered up this take:

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“Wouldn’t have happened in the Pumas.”

Puma later deleted the tweet out of sensitivity but it did crystalize the stakes involved here and the increased influence over the shoe industry that this unlikely event now provides Williamson.

“Zion was sitting in the catbird’s seat to begin with and assuming he is fine and healthy, all he got was even more leverage,” said Peter Miller of the Massachusetts-based Jabez Marketing Group, which specializes in the marketing of professional athletes.

Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts after falling during the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (Reuters/USA Today)
Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts after falling during the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (Reuters/USA Today)

Williamson was already the No. 1 target coming out of college athletics this year for shoe and apparel companies. His combination of size, speed and highlight-reel dunks have made him arguably the biggest potential sneaker endorser since LeBron James joined the NBA in 2003.

Williamson’s game is ideal for modern social media – he produces viral moments nearly every game and already has 2.4 million Instagram followers. He is the likely national player of the year with brand-name Duke and could still be a national champion. He’ll be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft and could even wind up with the New York Knicks.

He’s already a star. He was always going to command a massive amount of endorsement money.

“He’ll set the record for a shoe deal of any NBA rookie,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the retired shoe executive who signed Michael Jordan to Nike, Kobe Bryant to Adidas and was heavily involved in LeBron’s pre-NBA career. “He’ll be one of the biggest guys in the league, right away.”

That could mean up to $10 million per year, before he is even drafted.

Now it could be even more, likely millions more. While Nike, Adidas, Puma and Under Armour were all expected to bid for Williamson, the stakes are considerably higher now for all of them, especially Nike, the wealthiest of those suitors.

“You would think Nike has to sign him,” said Miller, who previously worked as an executive with Reebok. “At the same time, Adidas also has no choice. For Adidas, you can have this storyline without even playing the clip.”

For Nike, losing out on Zion is not just to risk missing out on the next LeBron who could conceivably shift the paradigm of the shoe industry since the swoosh rode Jordan to dominance in the mid-1980s. That would be a bad day for Nike.

This would be worse though because if Williamson were to sign with anyone other Nike, the story, at least partially, would not be that the company was simply outbid for his services, but rather that he chose a competitor because Nike made faulty and unsafe shoes. It’s a double hit.

It could be seen, and likely marketed, as a rejection of Nike due to substandard design and construction by a player who came up in the Nike grassroots system and chose to play for one of Nike’s flagship college programs only to be put in a risky position by Nike. In other words, Nikes aren’t safe.

Wouldn’t have happened in the Pumas … or Adidas … or whatever

“This was a malfunction of their product,” Vaccaro said. “They said it was a Paul George shoe. Well, are all the shoes made under the Paul George line like that? This is what they are out there selling, what they put on the most popular kid in the biggest game of the year.”

Nike certainly isn’t happy with what happened.

“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery,” Nike said in a statement. “The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

Williamson is expected to turn pro at the end of Duke’s season, which will be either next month or in early April. He will then be free to sign endorsement deals.

The best way for Nike to put this behind it is to sign Zion Williamson. Get him and all is well. Make him a signature shoe, put it on the market and watch sales soar. That was already going to be costly.

After Wednesday night, however, Zion’s value is not just as an endorser who can prop up say Adidas or Puma, but at the same time drag down Nike.

That motivates Adidas, Puma and anyone else. And, in turn, further motivates Nike.

And motivation, in this case, means money.

“I just hope he’s OK,” Vaccaro said. “But look, as long as he is healthy, Zion is now in an even better position in dealing with Nike than he was before. And he was already in great position. Zion is about to maximize his position.”

That blown Nike has the potential to be one valuable, if unlikely, shoe.

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