The competition between Nike and Reebok is heating up as the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta approach. The shoe giants are competing for Olympic advertising and Olympic athlete endorsements in an effort to dominate the $132-billion-a-year athletic shoe industry.
THE GAME BEGINS IN earnest this week when Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith launches an ad campaign to make American football an official Olympic sport. And before it’s over this summer, Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, American soccer star Michelle Akers and a band of international runners will be pitted against track superstars Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, tennis champions Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and Shaq’s Magic mate, Penny Hardaway. Which might lead one to ask: exactly what game is being played here?
The answer, of course, is no game at all. These athletes are foot soldiers in the global sneaker wars, a fierce engagement between Nike and Reebok over athletic shoes–a $13 billion-a-year business in the United States alone–and other sports apparel. In this rivalry, there is agreement on just one matter: the ’96 Olympics will be the ultimate battleground. “It’s got an aura around it unlike any other event,” says Reebok’s Liza O’Reilly. Adds Nike spokesman Tom Feuer: “There’s nothing bigger. It’s a Super Bowl every day.” Over the next three months, climaxing with the July 19-Aug. 4 Summer Games in Atlanta, these corporate giants will fight–in ads and on the field–for the hearts and soles of the world’s athletic wanna-bes.
What is now a war was once only a sideline skirmish, at least at the Olympics. Then two seismic events occurred: the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of America’s Dream Team. One ended the us-vs.-them, freedom-vs.-godless-communism prism through which America had long viewed Olympic competition. The other offered a substitute when Nike’s highest-paid stars, led by Michael Jordan, balked at donning Reebok’s official jackets for the gold-medal ceremony. “Now everybody looks at the Olympics as Nike vs. Reebok,” says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence. “The companies brag about who’s going to wear what when, and the networks go for it hook, line and sinker.”
The choice of non-Olympian Emmitt Smith, of all the athletes on Planet Reebok, as the linchpin of its Olympic ad campaign is unusual. It may reflect Reebok’s longing for an all-American athlete when so many of its goldmedal contenders in Atlanta will be foreigners (including the entire Russian Olympic team). Reebok may also be gun-shy after its 1992 “Dan and Dave” fiasco. That campaign was built around decathlon champion Dan O’Brien, who didn’t even qualify for the U.S. team. (Even worse, O’Brien bolted to Nike the following year.) Smith can’t fail in his Olympic quest because–despite Reebok’s insistence to the contrary–his NFL Dream Team is sheer fantasy. “Emmitt Smith is welcome to say whatever he wants,” says United States Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran, “but to us football is in the same category as Frisbee.”
Nike, meanwhile, is trying to plant its swoosh on everything in sight. Reebok is a poor runner-up to Nike in any chutzpah competition. It was Nike that raised shoe ties to the point where they’re discussed alongside national loyalties. First its Dream Teamers perpetrated the tacky logo cover-up on the medal stand in Barcelona. Then Nike chairman Phil Knight upped the embarrassment quotient by admitting he was rooting for the Nike-backed Brazilians over the Adidas-clad United States (on the Fourth of July, no less) in the 1994 World Cup. And even when Nike goes patriotic, it can still go wrong. As official outfitter of the U.S. track-and-field team, Nike designed a track suit with swooshes instead of stars on the American flag. That design, crass even by Olympic commercialization standards, violated rules limiting logo count.
But that may have been the whole point. Nike never looks back and never apologizes–and, with its extraordinary roster of Olympic athletes, usually gets away with it. In track and field, which even Reebok concedes is the one Olympic competition where the shoe companies “really make their statement,” Nike boasts a veritable who’s who of stars. It also boasts that its athletes don’t concern themselves with their rivals or their shoes. “Do you think the Chicago Bulls worry about every team on their schedule?” says Nike’s Feuer. “They don’t worry because they’re the best.” Reebok VP Scott Helbing is less convincing when he says that Reebok doesn’t worry about winning. “We define winning as personal achievement, not necessarily winning the race,” he says.
Nike won’t reveal details of its Olympic ad campaign, which starts in June, except that it’ll be centered on the new Zoom Air and Max Air training shoes. Once the Games begin, Reebok does have a TV edge. It has purchased exclusive rights to advertise athletic footwear on NBC Olympic broadcasts. Nike has to buy its air time on local affiliates throughout the country.
It’s on the streets of Atlanta, though, that the one-upmanship is reaching new heights. Or at least trying to. The city vetoed Reebok’s plan to paint an 80- by 60-foot Shaq on the side of a downtown historic building. (A mural, Reebok said; an advertisement, the city concluded.) But Olympic venues, where ads are banned, will be about the only swoosh-free places in Atlanta. Nike will have 16 downtown billboards and 10 painted buses, as well as an additional 136 posters in the rapid-transit system. Nike Park, built just for the Olympics, will welcome the public to its retail store, basketball court, soccer field, video theater–and best of all, air conditioning.
Though Reebok and Nike will be shoeing or outfitting some 4,000 Olympic athletes, Mizuno, Adidas and other companies will also get their feet onto the award podiums. Mizuno, in fact, claims to have won more medals in Barcelona than any other shoe company, although its competitors snipe that not all medals are created equal. Like judo medals, for example. To Mizuno’s Pat Devaney, the potshots are part of the fun. He says fans have come to enjoy the corporate rivalries reflected in the advertising, marketing and promotional ploys. “It’s in the spirit of the competitive environment,” he says. And maybe by the year 2000 in Sydney, the Olympics can rid itself of all those chauvinistic flags and anthems that just interfere with the logos and their message.