How a Nike rep screwed up one of the biggest deals of the decade

One of our most popular newsletter items is the Sales Fails section. People love reading about others’ mistakes, whether it’s because they’re funny, embarrassing, or because they make us glad that we weren’t the ones who screwed up. 

But sales failures are by no means limited to individual reps selling software or medical devices, they can happen at the highest levels of business, where the stakes are in the billions, and the outcomes can have immense and long-ranging implications. 

One such failure is considered by some to be the single biggest screw-up in the lucrative world of athlete endorsements, and, by some estimates, has brought over $14 billion in brand value for apparel company Under Armour at the expense of rival (and market-leader) Nike. 

Here’s what happened 

Back in 2013, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry was already a Nike athlete. His contract was set to expire, but, since he was signed with the brand, Nike had first crack at getting him to re-sign for any number of years. 

Nike invited Steph, his father Dell, and, presumably, his business representatives for a pitch meeting. The stage was set for the biggest sports apparel brand in the world to recreate the success they had with Michael Jordan – after all, they already had the athlete they were pitching. 

How it all went wrong 

But right from the start, the meeting went off the rails. First, Lynn Merritt, Nike’s famed power-broker, didn’t even attend the session. This signaled to Curry and his entourage that Nike didn’t think the meeting was particularly important. And it only went downhill from there. 

From ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss

“The pitch meeting, according to Steph's father Dell, who was present, kicked off with one Nike official accidentally addressing Stephen as 'Steph-on,' the moniker, of course, of Steve Urkel's alter ego in Family Matters. 'I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before,' says Dell. 'I wasn't surprised. I was surprised that I didn't get a correction.'

It got worse from there. A PowerPoint slide featured [Oklahoma City Thunder forward] Kevin Durant’s name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. 'I stopped paying attention after that,' Dell says. Though Dell resolved to 'keep a poker face,' throughout the entirety of the pitch, the decision to leave Nike was in the works.”

Other factors 

It wasn’t just the meeting that turned Curry and his advisors off from working with Nike, it also had to do with the offer. 

From BleacherReport.com

“Nike was willing to give young players like the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving and New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis their own company-sponsored camps for promising young athletes. After going to Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul's camps growing up, Curry wanted to be able to host camps of his own—but that wasn't part of the deal offered to him.”

The aftermath 

While Nike wasn’t willing to give Curry what he wanted, Under Armour, a bit-player compared to the famed shoe brand, went above and beyond to sign the up-and-coming star. In fact, Nike even blew a second chance at the deal. As per their original contract, they could have matched Under Armour’s $4 million dollar offer to Curry, a pittance for the company which at the time boasted a $100 billion dollar market capitalization. But they passed, and the rest is history. 

Curry has since become one of the most popular basketball players in the world, and has had a tremendous impact on Under Armour’s business. In fact, the company’s stock actually fluctuates based on the performance of Curry’s sneaker line. Curry and UA have since renewed their contract through 2024, though it’s not unlikely that their relationship will extend far past that date. 

So let this serve as a lesson to all sales reps. If you have an important client or prospect, make sure they know you value their business. Bring in sales leadership. Make sure you know how to pronounce their name. And, always, always, always, double check the slide deck. It might feel like a waste of time, but you definitely don’t want to lose a life-changing deal because you didn’t spend a few more minutes preparing.

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