All it took was less than a minute of the most anticipated college basketball game of the season. Ticket prices hovered just below those of the Super Bowl LIII, and celebrities from around the country had flown to North Carolina to watch what many sports fans call one of the greatest rivalries of all times, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels versus the Duke Blue Devils.
This year’s game had an even higher percentage of viewers than normal. Duke’s Forward Zion Williamson, the likely number one pick in the 2019 NBA draft and arguably the biggest basketball powerhouse since young LeBron James, had developed an enormous following. It was 30 seconds into the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium when Williamson jumped down and planted his feet. Jaws dropped as Williamson tore entirely through his left Nike shoe, leaving him flat on the floor with a minor knee injury. Far from a tiny rip or hole in the shoe, the sole was completely ripped.
Within hours, Nike found themselves trending on social media. Viral videos of former President Barack Obama (who sat courtside at the game) saying, “His shoe broke!” took the internet by storm, and close-up pictures of Williamson’s destroyed Nike PG 2.5’s were the front-page story for countless sports outlets.
Nike Works to Dissolve Crisis
One of the hardest parts of crisis management is the inability to predict when a crisis (big or small) will happen. Unfortunately for Nike, this shoe fiasco hit during the most-watched game of the regular season, with 4.34 million viewers on ESPN.
Nike, however, pulled out all of the stops to diffuse the crisis. Immediately after the incident, the company released an official statement acknowledging the broken shoe and identifying the actions it was taking.
“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”
When Nike stocks dropped by more than 1 percent the following Thursday morning, Nike decided to go the extra mile. That same day, the company sent a team of upper-level employees to Durham to meet with Zion Williamson and his coach Mike Krzyzewski to figure out what had gone wrong. Following their meeting in Durham, the team then flew across the globe to China. They personally oversaw the construction of a more durable and resilient shoe for Williamson.
The priority treatment didn’t stop there. Within the same week, the Nike team returned to Durham with a variety of shoe alternatives for Williamson. Nike wanted to ensure the same incident wouldn’t happen again and that Williamson would be ready for his anticipated and suspenseful return to the court in the ACC Tournament against Syracuse.
Williamson didn’t disappoint. His return following the shoe fiasco was a basketball game filled with one-armed dunks and electrifying energy that led Duke to a quarterfinals victory. After the game, Williamson raved about his custom knockout pair of Nike Kyrie 4’s to reporters, giving an enthusiastic thanks to Nike and the steps they had taken for him.
Nike’s Next Steps
While not every company can afford to fly around the world to appease a client, public relations professionals can still take a note out of Nike’s crisis management handbook. Nike was thorough and strategic in its crisis management. Since Zion Williamson is one of the most popular players in the country, it reflected highly on Nike that the team took the time to oversee the production of a custom shoe, reinforcing the idea that even a corporate powerhouse believes in a personal touch and quality care. Nike didn’t try to deny its responsibility in the crisis. Instead, they owned up to the isolated incident and went above and beyond to ensure Williamson and devoted fans were satisfied.
Nike’s actions are also a great look for a future endorsement deal with prodigy Williamson, who will be signing a contract with one lucky shoe company once he goes pro later this year.
Want to learn more about how social media can be detrimental during a crisis? Check out our blog post on Social Media in Crisis.
Written by Alex Davis-Isaac, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.