It’s been more than a month since Nike effectively shuttered the doors and windows at the Oven in Ft. Worth and shut down its golf equipment business. Casualties included a legacy that will never be what it could have been and the livelihoods of many outstanding people who I enjoyed working with over the past several years.
No doubt each of us will be left with indelible memories of Nike Golf as a golf equipment business. For many, I suspect it will simply be Tiger Woods. For others a set of irons, a Sasquatch driver, or maybe you sunk a tournament-winning putt on the final hole with a Method putter. There will be something that each of us associates with Nike Golf.
As odd as it may sound, for me, it’s simply that Nike brought people together. Nike Golf had the biggest and best events in golf, and they did them in a way that left time to get to know people. It is because of Nike Golf that I have friends in many strange places… like Canada, and other media outlets, and of course Portland and Ft. Worth.
In that respect, the equipment industry has lost something special.
What Went Wrong
Over the past few weeks, countless friends and readers have asked me what happened at Nike Golf. What went wrong? Why is the company leaving the golf equipment business?
There are matters of absolute fact. As with any business that fails, the bottom line has to do with an inability to attract a volume of customers necessary to make sufficient profit from comparably small margins.
It’s not particularly interesting.
The why behind the numbers, or the lack thereof; that’s a bit more open to opinion.
Why do I think Nike failed?
I believe there were several significant contributing factors. In no particular order, here they are.
The Annual Disappearing Act
For a company that’s fond of saying It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, it’s plenty ironic that Nike Golf would habitually sprint its way through spring only to stop running entirely for the better part of the golf season.
I’ve mentioned this before, but worth mentioning again – in the golf equipment biz, the industry leaders are omnipresent. Product launches are big deals. The smartest companies stagger releases so that there’s always something new to talk about. And when there isn’t new product, the industry leaders find ways to keep their names on the tip of your tongue.
Nike Golf constantly lifted its foot from the gas pedal. The established pattern was to announce product in late fall/early winter (often with the biggest and best media events in golf), release product (shoot a cool commercial or two) in early spring, and then totally disappear. Save the mid-summer media kit and the occasional apparel surprise, it was predictable, repeatable, and, frankly, it didn’t work very well.
Buzz was left to the mercy of PGA Tour. It was somewhat successful, I suppose, back when Tiger was Tiger, but when Nike Golf athletes failed to win (and in golf nobody wins all that often), Nike Golf didn’t win either. The company never learned to adapt to the post-Tiger realities, and momentum suffered for it.
A Long History of the Wrong Metalwoods
A good bit of Nike’s issues breaking into the mainstream can be traced to unconventional (I’m being kind) equipment designs, but the issues are most striking within the metalwoods (Drivers, Fairways, and Hybrids) category.
The company’s early metalwoods weren’t good. They were loud, ugly, and for many, not very long. Remember when it accidentally released a non-conforming driver? Sure, I’d still argue that, in its day, the VR Pro Limited Driver could stand up against anything in the sub-460cc category, but generally speaking Nike largely missed the mark, and with that, the mass market too.
This is especially true over the four year run of the boldly painted, high center of gravity, Covert (including Vapor and Vapor Fly) line. While the paint initially made golfers take notice, the cavity was gimmicky, and the resulting physics sketchy.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about a sporting goods giant. It should have been one of the dominant forces in golf equipment, but instead of challenging the likes of TaylorMade, Callaway, and Titleist, its nearest competitor (from a mass properties/design standpoint) was Bombtech. That’s not a knock on Bombtech, but the majority of mainstream products are designed, with good reason, to fit the mainstream. From a fitting standpoint, Nike’s metalwoods, and drivers, in particular, were essentially niche products that didn’t fit the majority of golfers well.
When it comes to his golf equipment, the consumer seldom grasps nuance. Performance is binary. A club either works for an individual (good) or it doesn’t (bad). Those perceptions often trickle down from the driver to the irons and on down through the entire line. Nike’s failure to produce a successful mainstream driver most certainly impacted perceptions of its other products.
The sad thing in all of this is that Nike Golf had quietly spent the last several years assembling a team that could fix the issues. I was as confident as anyone – likely as confident as anyone inside of Nike Golf – that the company was close to breaking through. I told countless people, “Nate [Nike’s Director of Engineering, Nate Radcliffe] is going to fix this. Give it time.”
And here’s the thing, the rumor is that Nate and his team had done just that. The won’t-be-released 2017 driver is cavity free and designed for a much larger segment of golfers.
Too little too late.
An Over-Reliance on Tiger Woods
Blasphemy? Hear me out. A few years ago I wrote an article titled Tiger Woods is Killing Nike Golf, and I believe as strongly as ever that I was largely spot-on. Certainly, anything Nike achieved in the equipment space is at least partially attributable to Tiger. I won’t discount his role in the company’s success, but I submit that he was also a tremendous hindrance.
Nike Golf often sought to position itself as a leader in equipment innovation. That’s an almost untenable position when your top athlete and the face of your brand eschews nearly every aspect of that innovation.
Whatever Nike’s technology – adjustable Covert drivers, RZN balls, semi-forgiving tour irons with modern lofts, even pants without pleats – Tiger remained bound to the old. He seldom had Nike’s latest and greatest in his bag. And yeah… you can argue that he’s Tiger Woods, and he’s smart to play what he’s comfortable with, but casual golfers took the position that if Nike’s stuff isn’t good enough for Tiger, it’s definitely not good enough for us.
While Nike insiders would tell you that Tiger unquestionably made them better, those same insiders were also well aware of the problems he created. If you have any doubt that Tiger’s equipment choices damaged Nike Golf’s reputation, I would ask you to check with any retailer stuck with TW15 inventory after Tiger decided he wasn’t interested in wearing his signature shoe.
The Ongoing Identity Crisis
Nike could never figure out who it was as a golf company. It’s well-documented that it bought its way in, rather than build from the ground up. Initially, it sought to position itself as a country club authentic brand, but that image didn’t mesh with Nike’s traditional flair or the gimmicky – or at least gimmicky-looking (and poor performing) – early products.
After abandoning the country club crest, Nike found itself stuck somewhere between innovation and Tiger Woods (see above). Even with the addition of Rory McIlroy, Nike Golf was never able to reconcile the differences between who it wanted to be and what the consumer thought it was.
It’s a hard point to quantify, but Nike never acted like its competitors. That is to say; it never acted like a golf company. Much of that was by design. Nike Golf was powered by an absolute certainty that golfers would eventually come around to the Nike way.
When, after more than a decade of waiting, golfers still hadn’t, Nike made the decision to roll the golf division into big Nike. Nike Golf would lose some autonomy, but, in theory anyway, would benefit from tighter integration with the larger Nike brand. Despite those efforts, a meaningfully revised strategy never materialized in any concrete, sales-generating form.
One could argue that the shutdown of the hard goods business was, in no small part, the result of Nike’s inability to define itself and its customer, and find its place as a golf equipment company.
Lack of Teeth
Tiger Woods is tenacious, the Nike Golf equipment business…not so much. I’ve frequently spoken about the great people at Nike Golf, but the biggest knock from its competitors was that it never looked as if the company had the teeth for the equipment business. Countless times, and by more than one person, I’ve been told that if TaylorMade’s Mark King had run Nike Golf, it would have obliterated everyone years ago. #1 by now, by plenty, and holding – if not separating.
Nike’s approach was much more if you build it they will come. It’s a mentality that lacked any real tenacity for the business. Instead, the company appeared to believe that simply being Nike would be enough.
Contrast that with the atmosphere at TaylorMade where being #1 is a daily obsession. It drives them. The company fought to be #1. It fought (as long as it could) to stay #1, and given more time than its pending sale allows for, it would, no doubt, fight to be #1 again. An obsession with winning was never in the Nike Golf DNA.
A Confounding Relationship with the Media
This one is perhaps a bit inside baseball, and it’s absolutely possible that MyGolfSpy’s experience differs from that of other media outlets, but it’s worth mentioning that Nike Golf does media relations differently. We’ve always chalked it up to Nike being a bigger company and running the day to day stuff accordingly, but it’s different nevertheless.
Compared to nearly every other company in golf, working with Nike requires a more proactive approach. If there wasn’t a corresponding launch event, we’d often find out about new products when the announcements hit our inboxes. A Friday, 5 PM Eastern Time press release wasn’t unheard of. By then the work week is over, and by Monday morning, whatever it is, it’s old news.
Nike is never one to shy away from sending samples, and it’s is almost always willing to provide as much product as we need for testing/review. Nike doesn’t back down from a review, but nearly everything is by request. The other guys… they go out of the way to make sure we have product in-hand ahead of launch. It’s a small thing, but it speaks to the tenacity of Nike’s approach.
Along similar lines, the golf division never quite grasped the importance of custom fitting, even at the media level. It’s our job to put products through their paces, test them, give them a fair trial. If they don’t fit properly, it’s difficult to do that, which diminishes our ability to validate products and help generate buzz.
I can’t count the number of times I was told: “we can only do stock.” Fair enough, but PING, Cobra, TaylorMade, and basically everyone else understands the necessity of sending product properly fit to the golfer writing about it. Many of Nike’s now former competitors are obsessive about proper specs.
I’m guessing Nike doesn’t send sneakerheads shoes that don’t fit. The same philosophy seldom applied to the golf gear.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Nike Golf never capitalized on personal relationships. My perception, which comes from being at Nike events and talking to other media, is that as a group, we love(d) Nike Golf. I have no doubt that the cynical reader will assume that the affection has something to do with free gear, but the reality is that short of a closet full of backpacks, Nike gave out comparative few equipment warez. Any affinity for the brand is directly attributable to the quality of the people at Nike Golf.
The media is like most of you (hopefully). We want to see good people succeed, so within the confines of personal integrity, one does what he can to help good people (and by extension the companies they work for) succeed.
That’s how it works, and nearly everyone on the other side of the equation is willing to trade on friendships, or even friendly relationships to get their company message out. There’s nothing scandalous of course, but we all deal with a bit of hey buddy, can you help me out? That comes with the territory.
Nobody that I worked with at Nike Golf ever did that. That was my experience, and while I certainly think the world of the people who never traded on relationships, given the universality of the practice, it almost certainly qualifies as a missed opportunity.
The Nike Model Doesn’t Work in Golf
I’ve touched on this already. Nike’s approach simply doesn’t translate in a sport where We believe in the athlete is more aptly stated as We believe in one specific athlete.
In other sports, Nike’s success relies on two critical factors: exposure and winning. Consider the Olympics as a whole or any of Nike’s individual athletes; LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Allyson Felix. The defining characteristic of Nike athletes is that they win. They win often, and they do it while prominently displaying their Nike gear. Volt-colored running shoes anyone?
In basketball, the best teams win 80% of the time or more. Track and Field… the same. In the NFL, entire teams show off the whole of their Nike gear.
In golf, even the best in the world don’t win at anything close to an 80% clip. Pre-injury Tiger was as close as it gets, but let’s be honest, Tiger hasn’t been Tiger for the better part of a decade. A business model dependent almost exclusively on winning doesn’t work in golf (not in the post-Tiger era anyway), and Nike Golf, to its detriment, never figured how to do golf any other way.
Nike Golf’s Failure to Play the Straight Man
Nike Golf was seldom conventional. Slingshot irons, Concept putters, Sasquatch, all things Covert, RZN (balls, crowns, and iron inserts), and Toe Sweep Wedges. It’s a long list. For every beloved (or at least cult) product like the Pro Combo irons, Nike released three aggressively innovative (and often oddball) designs.
It’s part of what made Nike Golf cool, but…
Under Tom Stites’ influence, the company’s tendency was to push the envelope long before it had found solid footing in the golf equipment space. Simply put, Nike Golf was innovative before it earned the right to be. It continually pursued non-traditional products, apparently believing that being Nike would be enough to drive sales; a notion categorically rejected by the consumer.
Very often it felt like too much too soon, with not nearly enough no-nonsense authentic golf gear to pacify the masses. The ongoing decision to place innovation above common sense often led to products that didn’t appeal to the majority of golf consumers.
To my mind, the most perplexing aspect of Nike Golf’s failure is how a division powered by so many humble and talented people could collapse under the weight of its immutable arrogance.
At the core of everything Nike Golf did, or I should probably say did wrong, was its unyielding belief that it could succeed in golf equipment based on the sheer force of being Nike. It’s woven into everything else I’ve discussed thus far.
That kind of thinking often works when you’re the dominant force in an industry (more so when you have just a couple serious competitors), but Nike seemed oblivious to the fact that, fair or not, its reputation in golf equipment was mostly bad, and that it most definitely wasn’t playing from a position of strength.
Instead of offering the kind of mainstream products golfers wanted, Nike was intent on proving that it was different. Nike Golf was innovative.
In recent years, the innovation first/sales later approach became increasingly rigid. Nearly every product was tainted by at least one questionable design decision (RZN inserts, volt swooshes, and that damn cavity) that pushed it, perhaps intentionally, out of the mainstream.
At some point, Nike stopped making golf equipment in order to focus on making Nike Golf equipment. It’s a not-so-subtle, RZN-infused, volt-colored, distinction that worked to the detriment of the brand.
Increasingly alienated fanbase? Declining market share? Who cares, we’re Nike!
Paint it blue for 2016! They will come around.
I’m talking about a branding-first approach deeply rooted in the belief that there was no need to adapt the consumer because the consumer would eventually adapt to Nike Golf. It was inevitable right up until the day it didn’t happen.
The proposition was always dicey given that Nike had cornered less than 5% of the market and it had no less than half-a-dozen more established (and more respected) equipment brands with which to contend.
The bottom line is that none of it worked.
In the end, it was Nike Golf’s outright refusal to give the consumer what he wanted that ultimately damned its equipment business.