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Nike hopes men’s hoops can redeem Olympics

Image: Lebron James
Eleven of the 12 players on the U.S. men's basketball team, including Lebron James, wear the Nike swoosh.Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

After some disappointments among Nike's prospects, the company is looking to men's basketball for one of those big medal moments companies crave from the Olympics.

Basketball is the top sport in China and other developing markets where Nike hopes to win over consumers. With the U.S. men's team's advancement to the semifinals in Beijing after a 116-85 victory over Australia Wednesday, the time may be right for the swoosh.

Nike says its sees this year's games — which drew the company's largest Olympics investment ever — as a success. It created a new product for every sport and outfitted 22 of the 28 federations.

In U.S. men's basketball, Nike outfits 11 of the 12 players, including NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, who has spent several summers in China building relationships and is mobbed wherever he goes. His is the top-selling jersey in China.

Bryant just had his best game of the Olympics, scoring 25 points against Australia. But Nike has seen better games for big wins.

Some of its top athletes, most notably Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, faced unexpected disappointments. And Nike lost the spotlight to competitors such as Speedo, which endorses Michael Phelps and created the famed LZR Racer suit, and Puma, which outfitted Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who swept the 100- and 200-meter sprints.

"We are about sticking by athletes through thick and thin, through injury and poor performances," said Nike brand president Charlie Denson from Beijing. "That is why sports are such an exciting field — there are no guarantees. There is heartbreak and failure as well as excitement and triumph."

In the case of the men's basketball team, Nike needs the latter.

"I think the folks at Nike do want to come out of the games with a big win...they have the luxury of multiple opportunities for that," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"Not that they aren't winning medals all over the place," Swangard said. "But those big iconic victories that transcend the games — that just hasn't happened yet."

Swoosh’s day to shine?
Nike could find one of those moments in the U.S. men's basketball team, which it has dubbed the "redeem team."

The U.S. team faces defending gold medalist Argentina or Greece on Friday in the semifinals. The team needs just two wins to gain its first gold medal since 2000. The Americans lost in the semis four years ago at the Olympics in Athens and then in the world championships in 2006.

But this time around the team has LeBron James and Bryant, two superstars who are among the most worshipped U.S. athletes in China. Bryant had to withdraw from the 2004 Olympic team because there was a chance he would be unavailable while facing a sexual assault trial, then pulled out on the eve of training camp in 2006 because he needed knee surgery.

But they bring a fast style of play to basketball that draws the attention of viewers everywhere.

"It's really been fun to watch and to watch this U.S. basketball team perform," Denson said. "I wouldn't say we expected it (such good performance) but we hoped for it.

China is crucial to Nike: It has surpassed the $1 billion annual sales mark there, making China the second biggest market for the Beaverton, Ore.-based company. The sport also captures attention because of its popularity in other developing markets, such as Eastern Europe, where Nike has been making inroads.

Nike finds added importance to defend its dominant position in basketball, particularly as it faces competition from Adidas, which is the NBA's official uniform and apparel supplier.

"The U.S. basketball team is becoming a global favorite again," Denson said.

He said the company has always worked with athletes from an early stage in their career, using their feedback to develop products. This gives Nike an edge in basketball, where it has a long history with consumers and players.

"It isn't a pure marketing game," Denson said. "This is how we build a brand."