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After Kyrie and Kanye Catastrophes, Celebrity Endorsements Ripe for Review

It’s hard to imagine a worse final outcome for a sponsorship than what happened to Nike on Dec. 7, 2022, a day that will live in endorsement infamy.

That night, as Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving laced up his Nikes for a home game against the Charlotte Hornets, he covered up the hallowed Nike Swoosh symbol with duct tape and wrote on it in gold metallic marker: “I AM FREE Thank you God … I AM,” and on the other side wrote, “Logo here.”

Two days earlier, Nike had officially severed its endorsement deal with Irving based on his reluctance to apologize for posting a link to an antisemitic movie on his social media page, which had prompted the NBA to suspend him for five games. The name of the film Irving had posted was titled, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America”, which is also the name of a book which examines the legacy of slavery through generations and across ethnicities. Given that, it’s hard mistake the meaning of Irving’s message—written on duct tape, which is also a well-known a muzzling device—that his $11 million-a-year endorsement deal with the world’s athletic leader, to him, was tantamount to slavery.

For Nike—which has a long history of accusations of labor abuses in overseas factories, is currently being sued in a class action that may include as many as 5,000 of its female workforce as plaintiffs, and recently was delayed in receiving a tax credit to open a giant warehouse outside of Dallas because county commissioners had concerns about its lack of diversity—being in any way associated with the legacy of slavery is about the last thing the company needed.

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Somewhat surprisingly, on Wednesday, Bally Sports reported that Adidas, New Balance and Puma had all reached out to Irving about a future endorsement deal that would give the Nets guard “some level of creative control.”

Of the three, Adidas is the most curious potential suitor, given its recent breakup with endorser and collaborator Kanye West over his extremely incendiary and repeated antisemitic comments, a separation that cost the German sportswear maker $300 million by shuttering the popular Yeezy brand.

Fast-forward nine days after Irving’s impromptu sneaker statement, and Nike launched the latest effort of the biggest success in its—or any—endorsement history with the opening of the 3,900-square-foot World of Flight store in the Italian fashion capital of Milan.

Part museum, part clothing store, The World of Flight is, as much as anything, a tribute to the nearly 40-year relationship between Nike and Michael Jordan.

Nike has announced it intends to launch more Jordan-branded stores in North America in 2023, though no word yet on whether they will be World of Flight-level experiences, which the company describes as the “pinnacle retail concept.”

How can Nike get endorsements so right and yet so wrong?

While there can be no comparisons made between the celebrity or the basketball success of Irving and Jordan, one clear distinction between the two is that Jordan never said anything remotely controversial. His most incendiary remark was saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” when asked why he wouldn’t support a Black candidate for Senate running against former segregationist Jessie Helms in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina.

No one stopped renting cars from Hertz after spokesperson O.J. Simpson was arrested for double-murder. Though Michael Vick lost his Nike shoe in the wake of his dog-fighting scandal and subsequent incarceration, the football standout’s post-prison return to the NFL brought him all the way to the Pro Bowl.

So what makes Kyrie and Kanye such liabilities for brands that they would rather cut bait and lose hundreds of millions of dollars by shelving popular products than stand by their onetime pitchman?

And yet Nike stood by quarterback Colin Kaepernick when his kneeling protests turned off a majority of NFL fans and took somewhat of a victory lap after the Black Lives Matter movement swung public opinion into the pro-Kaepernick camp. Despite that personal redemption, Kaepernick has not returned to the league and Nike isn’t selling many shoes based on their relationship with him.

The Kaepernick chapter might have ended up as a win when some customers upset with Nike’s campaign purchased and destroyed the brand’s shoes as their way of protesting.

But one other big reason the world may never again see an endorsement figure the likes of Jordan anytime soon could simply be generational. With the rise of social media influencers, and the steady disconnect from traditional TV, younger generations might not put the same value on the endorsement of one particular celebrity.

Research is beginning to bear that out.

Data analytics firm NPD’s July 2022 study asked U.S. consumers which types of social media impact their footwear purchase decisions. It revealed 35 percent of Gen Z respondents said posts from influencers swayed their purchasing decisions, compared to just 9 percent for millennials and older. 

“So, Gen Z is almost 4 times as likely as older age groups to be impacted by influencers when it comes to their footwear purchase decisions,” said Beth Goldstein, footwear industry analyst at NPD. “Brands and retailers are leaning into this with their social media strategies.”

An October NPD survey found that 60 percent of consumers in the U.S. rely on social media to learn about fashion brands.

“Where there once was a handful of impactful magazines that educated us on brands and trends, we now have countless outlets where we can plug into and learn about hot brands and new trends,” said Kristen Classi-Zummo, apparel industry analyst at NPD. “With so many channels for influence and inspiration, it’s important for brands to focus on the best path to their consumer.”

Increasingly, those channels do not involve a single, special celebrity endorser.

“I don’t think a celebrity endorsement, just for the sake of having a celebrity, has the impact it once did,” Classi-Zummo said. “Consumers are savvy, and they can read through inauthentic representation.  Whether it’s a celebrity, micro influencer, or peer reviews, I think focusing on whatever authentically represents the brand, and what it stands for, will resonate most with consumers.”

Nike is said to be creating a signature shoe with Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant after the Kyrie deal imploded. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Given the risk episodes like the Kyrie and Kanye sagas reveal, is it even worth it for brands to try to bring on a big-name celebrity anymore, let alone tie product directly to their names, as Adidas did with West and Nike did with the Kyrie 8 shoe that were manufactured, but never got to market?

“I think the level of risk in terms of tying a celebrity to a brand varies by the level of involvement. If their name is on the brand or product, or they essentially are the brand, it’s high risk, but also high reward,” Goldstein said. “If the celebrity is simply endorsing the brand or product, for example in an ad, that’s lower risk but also most-likely lower reward.  So a brand interested in working with a celebrity would have to determine the right balance for their end goals.”