Image: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

 

That’s the Nike Golf VR_S Covert Tour Driver if you were wondering. Image: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy is the latest star athlete to make the jump to Nike.  After months of speculation and a few broken hearts (sorry, Titleist and Oakley) along the way, McIlroy has signed a deal that is reportedly worth as little as five years and $100 million to as much as ten years and $250 million if incentives are met.  For those having a hard time comprehending that, that’s enough money to buy between half a million to 1.25 million pairs of the Air Jordan 11 “Playoffs.”

To borrow a golf cliche, it’s par for the course for Nike to make a big splash like this every few years, signing a young athlete to a major deal.  When Tiger Woods first burst onto the national spotlight – well, as a professional – in 1996, the world was captivated by his game, his youth and – let’s not kid ourselves – his look.  Millions were sold on the Woods image that somebody so young could be so good; Nike saw that and capitalized on it by signing Woods to a multi-million dollar contract before he had even won a PGA Tour event.  It was widely derided at the time, but there is a reason Nike is the leader in just about everything it does today; they had the foresight to believe in Woods and the guts to sign him.  Now Nike has a Nike Golf brand to show for it that brings in billions (yup, billions) in revenue each year (as much as sneakerheads complain about the price of kicks both new and retro nowadays, step into a pro shop every once in a while and calculate how much it would cost to play a round with modern equipment).  And despite all of Tiger’s uh… issues and struggles on the course, he has rebounded to the point where his game is what dominates the conversation again.  But Nike knows they can’t ride the Woods train forever; enter Rory.

We live in a different world in 2013 than we did back in 1996.  While it’s arguable that McIlroy doesn’t have the same crossover appeal that Woods does, Nike markets their athletes differently nowadays.  For decades now, Nike has been hoping that the next big name that they sign becomes the next Michael Jordan.  While they have achieved monumental success with the likes of Tiger, Lance Armstrong and LeBron James, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing to say the least.  That’s why they’ve changed their approach to marketing.  It’s more about accentuating their personality and showing their human side to the people.  It’s why Tiger has ads that more or less poke fun at him now and it’s why LeBron makes commercials where he is at peace with the people.  McIlroy will not be marketed as some sort of golf savior, but rather as a star that is comfortable in his own skin.  Basically, less “hello, world” ads and more “is that your real hair?” jokes.

There is also the “lifestyle” aspect that is key to why Nike signed McIlroy.  For those that pay attention to McIlroy’s life outside of the course, they will know that he has become quite the celebrity thanks to his association with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.  Nike probably wants to make sure that when McIlroy is seen with his superstar girlfriend, he’s also laced up in Nike gear as well. Nike Sportswear has been going big lately on pushing their stars like LeBron and the NFL as more than just athletic icons and using their cache to sell people on their lifestyle products.  With a name – and a contract – as prominent as McIlroy, it’s not inconceivable that he could join them at some point to create gear and apparel that is more suited for off the course activities.  Take the Nike TW ’13 as an example.  Tiger’s latest signature shoes looks like a pair of Nike Free running shoes that would work well on the streets as well as on the course.  Could we see a future where Tiger and Rory wear sleek silhouettes that are also modular, meaning they can be used on the course but can also be worn off it as they drive home?

And then there is the possibility of bringing in some popular Nike kicks to the golf course as well. Imagine the thinking that went behind bringing the Nike Dunk to golf (yeah, this happened).  McIlroy will more than likely rock his own signature golf shoe eventually, but Nike Golf could have fun with this possibility in the meantime. Could we see those Air Jordans that Jordan Brand athletes have been known to rock at celebrity tournaments get some shine on the PGA Tour?  I would hate to imagine the campouts at Roger Dunn golf shops if they were decided to release an Air Jordan 11 “Concord” golf shoe.

Image: Nike

$250 million is a lot of money to invest in somebody as young as McIlroy and doesn’t dunk a basketball (at least in the minds of sneakerheads), but that just goes to show you that the kicks game is more than just the heat you see everybody else rocking on the street.  Athletes like Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Rodriguez all have multi-million dollar deals with Nike because they cater to that segment of the population that doesn’t care about retros, but rather want the latest look coupled with the best that technology has to offer, not something that came out 20 years ago.  If McIlroy can be the future of Nike Golf that Woods once was, then those 1.25 million Air Jordan 11 “Playoffs” won’t be such a bad investment.