Right Field: One swoosh down, another rises

Nike has severed its ties with disgraced cyclist Armstrong but has another ace up its sleeves in the form of top golfer McIlroy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 4:45am

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens wrote those words some 153 years ago in his transcendent novel A Tale of Two Cities but they could just as easily have been uttered by Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight in 2013. In the same week that golfer Rory McIlroy was unveiled as Nike's latest superstar ambassador, Lance Armstrong was officially exposed as the firm's latest disgraced ambassador. One swoosh up, one swoosh down. After years of endless accusations and speculation, Armstrong finally came clean during an interview with Oprah Winfrey and admitted that, yes, he indeed used performance-enhancing drugs on his way to winning an unprecedented seven Tour de France titles.

Surprised? Well, Nike certainly was. A few months back, after the US Anti-Doping Agency released a wide-ranging report on Armstrong's systematic drug use, Nike ended its 16-year relationship with him citing the "insurmountable evidence" as proof that he "misled Nike for more than a decade". However, the remnants of their partnership will linger for a long, long time.

Nike, and to a great extent Knight, have changed not only sports, they have changed the world. Nike has become every bit as big as the global sporting icons, like Manchester United, Barcelona, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, that they outfitted. If Nike had been this omnipresent back in the 1970s, Muhammad Ali may well have had a swoosh on his boxing gloves, shorts and boots despite the fact that the firm has no official boxing line. It doesn't make bikes either and yet Armstrong became Nike's most visible endorser after Woods.

What Nike does is create, perpetuate and, most importantly, sell myths and in that regard it was more than complicit in the mythologising of Armstrong. Thanks to a series of clever and defiant ads, it presented the case for Armstrong to the world. "Everybody wants to know what I'm on?" he asked in one ad. "I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"

The wife of frequent Armstrong target and former Tour champ Greg LeMond claims that Nike once paid an International Cycling Union representative US$500,000 to cover up a positive drug test from Lance. Armstrong vociferously denied this in his interview with Winfrey. However his denials are not carrying much weight these days. It's an issue that certainly bears watching, particularly since Armstrong looks like he is ready to play king rat to get whatever he wants.

It's not as if he opened up to Oprah because of some overwhelming sense of guilt. This is a cold, calculating human being who, by most accounts, has not changed one iota. If he has to drop a dime on Nike to get what he wants, he will have zero reservations doing so, particularly in light of the way the firm unceremoniously dropped him. But business is still business for Nike and it has been here before - the pariah in the stable has happened with Woods and his sordid affair, Kobe Bryant's rape charge and Michael Vick's dog fighting ring.

On a happier business note, signing McIlroy was a timely stroke of genius despite reports that Nike is paying him a fee of US$125 million over five years. Nike's golf line has always been Tiger and little else. But McIlroy will move the brand in ways Tiger no longer can. There are eight- and nine-year-olds with McIlroy's picture on the wall who know Tiger as not much more than a tabloid sideshow and a cautionary tale of excess and hubris. They have little first-hand knowledge of the most dominant athlete of this century because it has been five years since he was invincible. More importantly, they have not yet developed loyalty to traditional golf brands like Titleist and Callaway. They see Rory all swooshed out from top to bottom and they will want the same, particularly in the burgeoning and wildly lucrative Asian golf market. At 23 and seemingly with the best of his career in front of him, McIlroy should carry Nike golf for years.

Obviously, the final chapters in the McIlroy and Armstrong stories have yet to be written. It gets better and it gets worse in this tale of two athletes and one sponsor, which also happens to be the greatest commercial entity in the history of sports and makes some of the most enlightened marketing decisions while simultaneously claiming ignorance on some of the more troubling and regrettable ones. As Dickens wrote: It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.