Maria Sharapova’s US Open Exit: What It Means For Nike

Athletic giant Nike has one fewer star contender in the US Open tennis competition, after Russian pro Maria Sharapova announced yesterday on her Facebook page that she will withdraw from the tournament. How much of a blow will that be to her key sponsor?

The athletic brand has been promoting Sharapova for the past couple of weeks, including at a special event in New York last week, where the No. 3-ranked player joined Nike stars past and present for a friendly street-ball competition, which also doubled as a launch for the latest NikeCourt gear.

However, as Sharapova noted in her message to fans, she’s been suffering from an injury and hasn’t played a single match since losing to Serena Williams in the Wimbledon semifinals. And she has history of withdrawing from the New York competition, according to Russ Napolitano, COO of brand consultancy Tenet Partners.

“It is unfortunate for Nike that this is the second time in three years that Maria has pulled out of this high-profile Grand Slam tournament, forcing Nike to shift gears at a moment’s notice,” he said.

Napolitano noted that he often advises brands that working with celebrities carries risk, so they should always have a backup plan to help navigate any unexpected challenges.

“As luck would have it, Nike’s ‘just in case’ strategy can be to put much of its focus on Serena Williams,” said Napolitano. “This is not a bad position for Nike to be in. All eyes are now on Serena, as she is chasing the calendar Grand Slam [record], which hasn’t been done in 27 years, since Steffi Graf won all four back in 1988.”

For Nike, another finals showdown between Sharapova and Williams would’ve been preferable, but the brand still stands to benefit from its longstanding partnership with Williams, which has yielded unique on-court fashions and a signature line of sneakers.

Added Napolitano, “If Serena succeeds at making history by winning or even by making the finals, Nike’s exposure will be huge, with the Sharapova withdrawal a long-lost memory.”

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