With the NBA season starting, the much publicized team re-alliances are back in the headlines. The leader of these shifts is LeBron James’ abandonment of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the more championship-favored Miami Heat. The announcement, made by James in a one-hour ESPN special July 8, left Cleveland fans heartbroken and betrayed by their once hometown hero. The fallout led to a stream of anti-LeBron YouTube videos, Facebook pages and accusatory statements by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
Nike, which endorsed James since he was 18, saw this November as its time to speak up. The company released a commercial asking “What should I do?”. In it, James asks what the public wants from him, to disappear, to admit he’s a championship chaser or to just sell shoes? He asks the hard question of what exactly fans expect from athletes.
This is a challenge for any PR professional responsible for handling an athlete’s image. In all logical sense, James made a business decision. He switched from one company to another; people do it all the time without sparking Facebook hate groups. But Nike, a company that makes its money off understanding the personal connection people form with athletes, knew this was not the case.
So, what do you do when an athlete’s image could be in jeopardy? No, he didn’t get caught in a series of infidelities or sending inappropriate text messages to a reporter. What he did was much worse in the eyes of the fans: he let down the people who wear his jersey and buy his shoes.
That is what’s so great about James’ new commercial. It puts this heavy question in the hands of the fans. Nike does not condone his decision as right or wrong. It simply addresses the issue and allows fans to draw their own conclusions, while reminding us that at the end of the day James is a basketball player making a career choice.
This isn’t the first time the Nike PR team responded to an image problem with a commercial. In fact, they seem to follow the same plan they did with Tiger Woods. After Woods’ infidelities came to light, Nike waited a few months, then ran a simple but heavy-hitting commercial with a recording of Woods’ late father speaking to him. The commercial seemed to be Nike’s way of reprimanding him for his actions while also showing it would continue to support him and not drop its sponsorship.
It worked. Sure, there are still Tiger jokes and no one supports him the way they used to, but no one questions Nike’s business decision to stick by him. So the question is, “will this work for James?”. Of course, no Cleveland fans are about to jump back on the James bandwagon, but the almost 4 million views on YouTube suggest that those of us stuck in the middle can certainly forgive and forget.
By Megan Cotton