Nike’s Scandal Woes Just a Numbers Game

With billions invested in athletic endorsement deals, there's bound to be a few duds

Nike has a troubling knack for endorsing athletes prone to scandals, right?

Not really. In fact, the brand’s troubles stem from its own success. “They just have the preponderance of athletes under contract—particularly high-profile ones,” said Terry Lefton, editor at large of Sports Business Journal. “If any athlete is in trouble, it’s more likely to be in Nike’s camps than anyone else’s.”

Indeed, Nike has committed to some $3.2 billion in endorsements over the next five years. The brand declined to share the exact number of athletes it sponsors but said it works with thousands.

Still, last week’s news that South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was charged with shooting to death his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, means more bad press for a global sportswear marketer that in recent years has found itself uncomfortably close to a string of controversies.

As the Pistorius story snowballed, attention turned to a past Nike ad featuring the runner alongside the unfortunate tagline “I am the bullet in the chamber.” The ad was quickly pulled from Pistorius’ website at the brand’s request.

In a public statement, Nike offered its sympathies and condolences, saying it wouldn’t comment further on an ongoing police investigation.

The fact remains that the brand is more than strong enough to weather the storm, Lefton said.

Nike does seem to err on the side of standing by its athlete endorsers—except in the most extreme cases. “They want to be the athlete’s friend more than the fan’s friend,” Lefton said. “That’s always been their way.”

That strategy can have its benefits in the long run, according to sports marketing consultant and Columbia University professor Joe Favorito. “If there are athletes that have a chance to come back and overcome whatever happened in their past,” he said, “they become that much more valuable to the brand that supported them all along.”