Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad has become the stuff of legend (and fodder for endless memes) in the past month, but the campaign almost didn’t happen.
The New York Times reports that Nike (NKE) had second thoughts about working with the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, almost cutting him loose because of the risk of alienating the National Football League, a Nike partner since 2012. But the company ultimately decided that the credibility Kaepernick would give Nike among its target audience was worth it.
Nike spokesman KeJuan Wilkins told the Times the company had robust discussions about Kaepernick. “It would be normal for a number of people to offer different perspectives,” he said. “In keeping with Nike’s mission, any final decisions are made as a group.”
Earlier this year, Nike’s decision to keep Kaepernick in its roster of sponsored athletes without actually using him prompted Kaepernick’s lawyers to tell the company it was not fulfilling its contractual obligations, sources told the Times. That, in turn, caused Nike’s top sports marketing executives to push for an end to the company’s contract with him. That decision incited outrage from Nike communications head Nigel Powell. Powell was able to reverse course and keep Kaepernick at the company, which ad agency Wieden & Kennedy had also pushed for.
In 2016, Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem before his NFL games to protest recent police killings of African-Americans, social inequality, and racism, and other athletes followed his lead. That led to heated debates about free speech and protest within the world of sports, and Kaepernick went unsigned for the 2017 season.
Nike ultimately tapped Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ ad campaign. His face appears with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Chief Executive Mark Parker said on a recent earnings call, “We feel very good and proud of the work that we’re doing. It’s driving a real uptick in traffic and engagement, both socially and commercially.”
Nike’s revenue for the first quarter, which ended Aug. 31, saw double-digit growth to $9.95 billion. North American sales, which had stalled in recent years, grew 6% to $4.14 billion. Nike’s market value has risen by $6 billion since Kaepernick ad campaign was released.