The swoosh has a new home – in the middle of Irish golf star Rory McIlroy’s hat.
And on the back of his clubs. And there’s a Nike logo on his shirt. For the money Nike paid him, I’m sure the mop-topped star would willingly have it tattooed on his arm for the reported 10-year, $200 million contract.
That’s right – after months of speculation, McIlroy and Nike have finally made their courtship official. For an undisclosed amount of money, McIlroy and the Oregon-based athletic equipment company inked a deal that was announced as the golfer was preparing to play for the first time in 2013 in Abu Dhabi. The arrangement was widely anticipated, especially after Titleist, who had an endorsement deal with McIlroy, who has won two of golf’s major championships by the age of 23, said it wouldn’t be renewing its contract late last year. By that point rumors were already circulating that Nike would make a big bet on McIlroy.
Nike Golf president Cindy Davis flew to Abu Dhabi to participate in a press conference announcing the deal, and the company premiered a television commercial that placed McIlroy alongside longtime Nike staff player Tiger Woods. The commercial cleverly alluded to the McDonald’s commercial that saw basketball stars Michael Jordon and Larry Bird compete to make increasingly outlandish shots. The commercial is funny and sharp, with McIlroy and Woods trading shots – both verbally and with their clubs. McIlroy looks every bit the star in the TV spot. But the question is whether that star will shine on Nike’s golf equipment.
There’s no doubt the youthful twenty-something golfers has charisma and appeal; he’s one of the very few golfers whose appeal extends beyond the sport. Nike has apparently decided he’s the face of the business, one that was damaged when Woods’ revelations of infidelity hit the media in 2009. Until that point Woods was basically a one-man show for Nike. Sure there were other golfers who had roles in the company’s marketing plans, but for the most part the spotlight was solely on Woods.
For more than a decade Nike has used Woods to try to find a place in the ultra-competitive world of golf gear. There’s no denying Woods helped Nike sell truckloads of clothing, but when it came to drivers, irons and balls, making inroads has been a far greater challenge. Davis told me late last year that Nike’s marketshare for drivers and irons was very slight – and that despite having the highest-profile golfer on the payroll for 15 years. Some suggested that’s because casual weekend hackers– who spend an inordinate amount of time studying what the best players in the world are using – felt Woods could have won using a broom and an old two-by-four. In other words, many felt his skills eclipsed any benefits provided by the clubs.
Will McIlroy change that perception? Is he the one that will convince consumers that Nike’s new (and admittedly very cool looking) Covert driver needs to find a place in their bag? Reports have suggested Nike is paying Tiger-like money – perhaps upwards of $20-million a year – to find out. A company has to shuffle a lot of drivers past cash registers to see any return on investment on that kind of cash. Davis called the signing of McIlroy one of the most significant events in Nike Golf’s history. That’s obvious to anyone – but what happens if McIlroy doesn’t continue his improbable rise or Nike Golf gear doesn’t fly off the shelves because it has the blessing of Ireland’s biggest star?
McIlroy, for his part, discounted any problems transitioning from his Titleist gear to the swoosh-emblazoned clubs.
“It’s been a relatively easy process,” he said at today’s press conference. “I feel like I’ve transitioned seamlessly from one thing to another. I’m really comfortable with all of the clubs.”
McIlroy’s press conference was held at a palatial hotel in Abu Dhabi, and in typical Nike style, high-energy music pumped through the sound system before the spotlight shone on the golfer. It was as if a rock star entered the building.
And like a rock star, if Nike is going to benefit from what is surely an enormous deal, McIlroy is going to have to deliver enormous appeal for years to come. That’s not impossible, but in golf it has only happened once in the last two decades and didn’t exactly yield the results everyone – Nike included – expected.