Report: Nike nearly cut ties with Colin Kaepernick before making him the face of ad campaign

Nearly a month after Nike announced that Colin Kaepernick would be the face of its “Just Do It” 30th Anniversary ad campaign, the decision appears to be paying off.

Nike’s stock price hit an all-time high at $83.47 less than two weeks after the announcement and has since continued to rise, peaking at $85.55 last Friday and closing at $83.70 on Wednesday. The company has enjoyed positive press and encouraging consumer data in its target markets, seemingly vindicating the risk it took in embracing quite possibly the most politically divisive person in sports.

And yet, all that might not have happened had it not been for one executive afraid of some bad press.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Nike was very close to cutting ties with Kaepernick last year, when the quarterback remain unemployed and a political lightning rod. While the relationship has obviously since blossomed, tensions behind the scenes reportedly raged.

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Colin Kaepernick through his career
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Colin Kaepernick through his career
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 02: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #10 of the Nevada Reno Wolf Pack celebrates with fans after defeating the UNLV Rebels 44-26 at Sam Boyd Stadium October 2, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
30 December 2008: Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick (10) in the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl held at Bronco Stadium in Boise, ID. (Photo by Steve Conner/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - CIRCA 2011: In this handout image provided by the NFL, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers poses for his NFL headshot circa 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images)
MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 29: Colin Kaepernick #10 #10 of the North Team scrambles out of the pocket while taking on the South Team during the fourth quarter of the Under Armour Senior Bowl on January 29, 2011 at Ladd-Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for Under Armour)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 12: Colin Kaepernick # 7 of the San Francisco 49ers defends as his team plays the New Orleans Saints during their pre season game at Louisiana Superdome on August 12, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 1: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers throws the ball from the pocket against the San Diego Chargers during their preseason NFL Game on September 1, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San DIego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers throws before a game against the Seattle Seahawks on October 18, 2012 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 13-6. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 09: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs down the field in between plays during their game against the Miami Dolphins at Candlestick Park on December 9, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 12: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after running in a touchdown in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Candlestick Park on January 12, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers hugs a teammate as they celebrate in the locker room after the 49ers defeat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome on January 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers answers questions on his tattoos during Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday, January 29, 2013, in New Orleans, Louisiana.. (George Bridges/MCT via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up against the Baltimore Ravens during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 09: Professional football player/presenter Colin Kaepernick attends the Third Annual Hall of Game Awards hosted by Cartoon Network at Barker Hangar on February 9, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. 23270_002_SK_0224.JPG (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 08: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs onto the field for their preseason NFL game against the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park on August 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 25: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers scrambles away from the rush of Fred Evans #90 of the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter at Candlestick Park on August 25, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 26: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up before a game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 26, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 20: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs the ball in the first half against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on October 20, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 20: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts during a NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on October 20, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 19: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers walks off the field after losing to the Seattle Seahawks 23-17 during the 2014 NFC Championship at CenturyLink Field on January 19, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 02: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the sidelines against the St. Louis Rams during the third quarter at Levi's Stadium on November 2, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - AUGUST 29: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to facing the Denver Broncos during preseason action at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on August 29, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
20 September 2015: San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) [16242] in action during a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to playing the Baltimore Ravens in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers fires the team up on the field prior to the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the 49ers 31-24. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 24: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 1: Eric Reid #35, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eli Harold #58 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline, during the anthem, prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. The Seahawks defeated the 49ers 25-23. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
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Nike’s relationship with Kaerpernick had been strained

Back in 2017, when Kaepernick was in his first season of free agency and mired in a collusion lawsuit against the NFL, Nike executives reportedly didn’t know what to do with an athlete that had nearly no chance to see an NFL field again and faced a sea of public negativity.

Per the Times, Nike’s top decision-makers had actually decided to end the company’s contract with Kaepernick, which would have dealt a significant public blow to Kaepernick. That move was stopped by the efforts of one executive: head of communications Nigel Powell, who reportedly “went ballistic” when he heard of the decision.

The simple reason for wanting to keep Kaepernick was that Nike was more interested in the demographics they’d anger by cutting Kaepernick than the demographics they’d anger by embracing him.

Powell argued that Nike would face backlash from the media and consumers if it was seen as siding with the N.F.L. rather than Kaepernick. And Nike, along with most apparel companies, is desperate to attract urban youth who increasingly look up to Kaepernick; the largely white, older NFL. fans angry at the league over the protests are not a priority for those companies, analysts say.

Per the report, Nike eventually decided to hold onto the athlete, then allow his contract to quietly expire in 2019. That plan still drew anger from Kaepernick’s representative, who argued the contract required Nike to still use the quarterback in ad campaigns or products. Ultimately, Nike realized there was profit to be had from Kaepernick’s status as a civil rights figurehead.

How Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign came about

The Times reports that Nike’s ad agency Wieden & Kennedy “urged” the company to use Kaepernick in its upcoming “Just Do It” campaign, despite the potential for massive blowback from the NFL, an business with which Nike has a relationship in the hundreds of millions of dollars. However, with Nike’s financial ties reportedly set to shrink in 2020 due to a prior licensing agreement, the company decided to take the risk.

Wieden & Kennedy “pushed to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign,” a designer at the firm wrote in September on a website showcasing his work. He added: “Nike agreed to it. We made it. Colin posted it. People lost it.”

According to people who worked on the campaign, Kaepernick’s role came together rather quickly, with significant elements completed just weeks before the release. Wieden & Kennedy didn’t finalize the agreement for the edited image of Kaepernick with text until Aug. 27, and Lacey Baker, a skateboarder featured in the ad, said Nike did not reach out to her until mid-August.

Kaepernick campaign has since flourished

The short-term blowback that Nike received for its big move with Kaepernick was both very loud and very predictable.

Boycotts were planned, people burned their already purchased Nike gear and several conservative figureheads blasted the move, most visibly of all the President of the United States. Donald Trump tweeted twice about a topic he has been obsessed with, claiming that Nike was getting “absolutely killed with anger and boycotts” and asking what the company was thinking with their divisive decision.

That’s the negative for Nike. The positive is that the company has been seeing record engagement, increased sales and strong consumer data in the younger markets it covets.

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