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Nike's Colin Kaepernick campaign has more reward than risk

Daniel Roberts

On Labor Day, Nike made a surprise reveal: Colin Kaepernick is the face of its new 30th anniversary “Just Do It” marketing campaign.

Kaepernick himself tweeted out the ad, which says, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” and Nike retweeted it.

The move took social media by storm as current and former pro athletes including LeBron James, Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, and Shawne Merriman, celebrities like D.J. Khaled, Zach Braff, and Jamie Lee Curtis, and even former CIA director John Brennan all showed their support and approval of the ad campaign on Twitter and Instagram.

On the other hand, many social media users reacted immediately by threatening to boycott Nike. John Rich, one half of the country duo Big & Rich, tweeted that the band’s sound man cut the swoosh off the top of his Nike socks in protest. It’s worth noting that Big & Rich performs the song that plays every Saturday at the top of ESPN’s College GameDay; ESPN is the broadcaster of NFL Monday Night Football.

President Trump has tweeted angrily about Colin Kaepernick and NFL management for a full year now. Trump is almost sure to say something publicly about the Nike deal. As a recent Morning Consult poll found, seven in ten Trump voters say they are less likely to support a brand that advocates for the right of NFL players to kneel in protest.

Shares of Nike (NKE) dipped by about 3% in early trading on Tuesday.

Despite all the noise, sports marketing experts that spoke to Yahoo Finance in the immediate wake of the campaign say that the reward for Nike far outweighs the risk. The general consensus, for now, is that Nike made a savvy splash right at the start of a new NFL season, and is going to reap massive attention—even if some of that attention is negative.

Colin Kaepernick attends the 2017 ACLU SoCal’s Bill of Rights Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2017. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Colin Kaepernick attends the 2017 ACLU SoCal’s Bill of Rights Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2017. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

“Will there be people who stop buying Nike because of this? Yes,” says Brian Cristiano, CEO of ad agency Bold Worldwide. “But there will also be others who use this as an excuse to buy another jersey or pair of sneakers. Regardless of how loud the keyboard warriors and voices opposed to Kaepernick get, Nike will remain standing at the end of it all. And as they say, no press is bad press.”

Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert with Baker Street Advertising, echoes a similar tone. “Yes, it will alienate consumers—just look at the Twitter reaction already,” he says. “But the attention it will gain, the publicity, the media discourse, the incredible reaction will far outweigh any loss of business that might result. For every swoosh that’s lost, one or more will be gained.”

Another worthwhile question, separate from fan reaction, is what the move might mean for Nike’s relationship with the NFL. Kaepernick is suing NFL team owners for collusion, and an arbitrator just last week dismissed the NFL’s attempt to quash the lawsuit. Now it is likely heading to trial. Nike is the official apparel sponsor of the NFL through 2028—and now it’s standing behind the former player suing the league.

“NFL brass can’t be too happy” with that, Dorfman acknowledges. But as NPD Group retail analyst Matt Powell says, Nike’s lucrative sponsorship deal with the NFL protects it. The NFL’s hands are tied.

As Cristiano notes, “We’re talking about enough money for the NFL to swallow their pride regardless of how they really feel.”

Still, expect Nike’s sponsorship of Kaepernick to be one of the loudest off-the-field storylines when the NFL season kicks off on Thursday.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. He hosts the podcast Sportsbook and the video series Business + Coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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