Fire at the house of Nike: Built on smoke and mirrors, sports giants who once lied about Tiger Woods being banned for his skin colour are losing him, Harry Kane and Jack Grealish amid $2bn cuts – but why?

 

Nike has been consumed by scandals, financial losses and talent departures They say cutting deals with talent are not related to $2billion of cost-cuttingIndustry figures have blasted Nike’s ‘draconian’ contracts and behaviour 

 

There has been a lot of discussion in the weeks since Tiger Woods ended an era and extended a trend by leaving the most powerful company in sport. Just about none of it recalled the white lie told by Nike at the start of their relationship.

 

The detail is found in an iconic advert that aired in the days after he signed in 1996. If the $2.5million Nike paid to land Michael Jordan in 1984 was the endorsement deal of the century, then the $40m to recruit a 20-year-old amateur golfer was the next best example of picking the right club for the right moment.

 

That was always a Nike speciality. In many ways it still is, but they now appear to be in a state of turbulence, which has drawn intrigue around budget cuts, lay-offs, big-name departures and the health of an empire. We will soon return to that point, but first let’s revisit a one-minute commercial.

 

Titled Hello World, it starts with grainy footage of Woods as a child flushing a drive and an overlay of text to say he carded in the 70s at eight. As the montage rolls, more clips appear to tell us this kid is different. That he is special. That the world might not be ready for him. It was very nicely done, as usual.

 

Tiger Woods pictured with Nike co-founder Phil Knight in 2016 – the golfer’s association with the American sportswear giant, which began in 1996, recently came to an end

 

But there was more to the messaging, because with Nike there always is, and so those writers built up to a real zinger: ‘There are still courses in the United States I am not allowed to play because of the colour of my skin.’

 

Poignant and punchy, that landed spectacularly. It hit the high notes of a star and the weak spot of a sport whose history around discriminations is awfully troubled and long.

 

As the three-time US National Amateur champion it transpired there was not a course in the land that would refuse Woods a tee time. When Nike were nudged about this, they said it wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

 

In a nutshell, that’s an anecdote which might be applied to much of Nike’s history – the half-truths of a behemoth built 62 years ago on smoke and mirrors and which, to this day, is locked in a discrimination lawsuit of its own. 

 

Shoppers are seen at the Nike store in New York on ‘Black Friday’ last year – but the following month the company announced ‘reorganisation’ plans to shave $2billion off their costs

 

The noise has died down in the past year about Nike’s gender equality case, first brought by an undisclosed number of female former employees in 2018, but it was confirmed as ongoing to Mail Sport by one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, Laura Salerno Owens, on February 28.

 

It’s a troubling scenario that sits in a company timeline filled with tales of vast success and ugly scandals. And now there are other sounds, because the past three months have been interesting at Nike’s Oregon headquarters in the United States.

 

In late December, the brand announced ‘reorganisation’ plans to shave $2billion [£1.56bn] from their costs across the next three years, and a fortnight later, in January, Woods and Nike parted ways, as had Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and multiple high-profile footballers before him. 

 

In February came a further disclosure that two per cent would be cut from the Nike workforce of 83,000, which was followed by a whisper that reached Mail Sport by the end of the month: FC Barcelona are believed to be exploring ways out of a deal that dates back to 1998.

 

From a company that holds sport in the crook of its famous Swoosh, those are plumes of smoke that provoke a pair of familiar questions: Is there a fire at House Nike? And why does it matter?

 

The main entrance to the Nike headquarters at Beaverton in Oregon – the company seems to be besieged by problems at the moment

 

Their maternity policy was updated in 2019 but the mud stuck and the gender discrimination lawsuits have fed into the picture. The slogan says Just Do It; the reality has often been Just Say it.

 

And that goes right back to how Nike was founded, when Phil Knight was able to sweet talk his first suppliers into a distribution agreement despite having neither a company name nor a premises beyond the boot of his green Plymouth Valient.

 

They grew from those conversations into a giant. And not for the first time there appears to be some issues at the top of their beanstalk.

 

 

Gideon Canice

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