As Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose limped off the court on Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers, Adidas was feeling the pain too. The sports-apparel company has pledged $185 million to Rose over 13 years in an ambitious effort to attack Nike head-on in the $3.7 billion basketball-shoe market. But now Rose is out for the season with a knee injury, again, and Adidas may have a tough time maintaining excitement around the star’s brand in his absence.
When Rose (hopefully) suits up again in November 2014, he will have missed nearly 200 games in three seasons. That’s an enormous drop in court time for an athlete whose career possibilities seemed limitless when he became the youngest player ever to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2011.
“They’re not going to have the on-court exposure of him playing every night,” says Matt Powell, an analyst at sports-research firm SportsOneSource. “If he sits out a whole year, that’s a long time to lose that exposure.”
Though Rose has played sparingly since his MVP season, his brand power has remained strong. His line of shoes, currently headlined by the Rose 4, is one of the most successful in the NBA, generating $40 million in sales in 2012, according to SportsOneSource. He hasn’t reached the sales level of Kobe Bryant ($50 million in 2012 sales) or LeBron James ($300 million), and he’s certainly nowhere near the numbers the Jordan empire puts up ($2 billion), but his sales now eclipse those of other young stars like Kevin Durant. Rose also had the second-best-selling jersey globally during the 2012–13 season, though he didn’t play in a single game.
“You have this new phenom, this new person that the public liked and respected because of his dedication to the game,” says Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime marketing executive for Nike and Adidas, who originally signed Michael Jordan to Nike. “If he doesn’t get hurt, Derrick Rose is on his way to becoming one of the greatest players to play in the NBA — multiple All-Star and a future Hall of Famer. It was a big sign for [Adidas]. He was the face of their brand.”
With Rose now gone again, it’s not clear how long Adidas can keep his hype machine riding on fumes. The company was able to flip his last injury into a marketing opportunity, launching a microsite to chronicle his rehabilitation and helping to boost excitement for his return. Powell says sales of the Rose 4, which launched in September, have been stronger than those of the Rose 3, which debuted in 2012, when everyone knew Rose wouldn’t be playing again for months.
Now Adidas will have to come up with some new strategy to keep fans interested in the Bulls star. “Everything was built on him coming back,” explains Vaccaro. “It was successful. He was on every magazine. The shoe was selling. All those things were positive, and now this. There’s no remake. How do you play that show again?”
The company has given no indication of how it plans to play the current Rose injury, though it’s obviously wishing him a speedy recovery. “As fans of the game and a close partner, we wish Derrick a quick recovery,” the company said in a statement. “His hard work, dedication and love of the game is inspiring to his millions of fans worldwide and to all of us at Adidas. Our support for him will continue to be unwavering.”
The spate of injuries is bad luck for Rose and for Adidas, a company that has had mishaps with star players before. In 2002, Adidas inked rising superstar Tracy McGrady to a lifetime shoe-and-apparel deal that was the biggest it had ever signed with an athlete. Thanks to injuries, he’s missed dozens of games in most seasons since then. Adidas also signed Bryant out of high school in the ’90s, but he jumped ship to Nike at the first opportunity. Dwight Howard currently has an Adidas deal, but his popularity fell after an awkward departure from the Orlando Magic. These misfires have left Adidas with a paltry 5.5% of the basketball-shoe market, compared with about 92% for Nike, according to SportsOneSource data.
“They have no backup plan,” Vaccaro says. “Nike’s stable is so secure that they can almost lose a player off every team and still have an All-Star guy that resonates. Adidas doesn’t.”
Experts predict that Rose will return in full form next year, as he’s going through a longer rehabilitation process to ensure that he doesn’t suffer a similar injury later in his career. A dominant Rose in 2014 could actually be a boon for Adidas because sports fans love comeback stories. Jordan’s constant returns from injuries, sickness and even retirement helped to build his mythic status — and sell more sneakers. Bryant’s shoe line found success after he settled his sexual-assault case and proved he could win championships without Shaquille O’Neal.
If Rose doesn’t return to MVP status, though, Adidas will have to scour the league for other options. Durant’s $60 million endorsement deal with Nike ends after this season. The company might also try to pick a star out of next year’s NBA draft, like Andrew Wiggins of Kansas or Jabari Parker of Duke. But even these signees would have a tough time matching the star power Rose has generated while sitting on the bench.
“No matter if they were to sign one of the top kids in this year’s draft, it does not overcome the loss of Derrick Rose — a known commodity, valued asset to the brand,” Vaccaro says. “If he comes back next year, and he’s great, then everybody’s going to applaud him more. It’ll be the greatest comeback since anything.”