Nike Hires Don King to Trumpet Tennis Showdown

New Campaign Portrays Nadal and Federer As Boxing Rivals

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NEW YORK ( -- Tennis has always had its share of loudmouths, some of the more memorable being Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and, of course, John McEnroe. But for its most "significant" tennis campaign in years, Nike is bringing out the most loquacious and vociferous loudmouth of them all -- Don King. Tennis will never be the same.

Nike's 'Grapple in the Apple' campaign behind next week's U.S. Open portrays Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as boxing rivals.

Nike tonight kicks off its "Grapple in the Apple" campaign behind next week's U.S. Open with a boxing-match-style media event featuring Mr. King and the sport's No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, respectively. The two have met in the finals of the last two Grand Slam events, the most recent of which was an epic five-set, four-hour battle at Wimbledon in July, which many have called the greatest tennis match in history.

And in this corner ...
Never one to miss an opportunity, Nike, which has endorsement deals with both players, is looking to capitalize on the attention this rivalry has recently brought to the sport by touting a potential finals showdown between the two at the U.S. Open as a heavyweight prize fight. The players have even been given boxer-type nicknames: Roger "The Magician of Precision" Federer and Rafa "Matador of Spin" Nadal.

The sneaker giant would not disclose the cost of the campaign but described it as the most significant tennis campaign it has done in quite some time.

Ken Dice, Nike's VP-U.S. brand management, said tennis has always been an important part of the company's global brand but the focus of its efforts has more recently been on tennis enthusiasts.

"But coming out of this summer's tennis activity, our feeling is it was time for Nike to take that approach and make it a little broader," he said. "We may be seeing two of the best players ever go at it in a way that tennis hasn't seen in a while. And it's time to see how that transcends from the most loyal tennis fan to [all other] sports fans or anyone who follows pop culture. The underlying idea is that we make sure all of New York knows about this. We are asking them to pick a side, and hopefully people will get engaged and start talking about it."

An insightful personality
To do that, Nike and its brand group is working with longtime creative agency Wieden & Kennedy and Don King Productions. Mr. King is not only serving as the mouthpiece for the campaign but as a creative partner as well. "We worked with Wieden to develop the Don King idea, and when we brought Don in we restructured our original idea around some of his insights," Mr. Dice said.

Nike, long known for its innovative marketing approach and collaborative efforts when it comes to the design of its products, saw this as an opportunity to take both of those aspects to "another level."

"How often do we bring a third creative partner to the table with a veteran marketing agency and shake things up by saying, 'Hey! We have this idea and we think you can help us. Can you help us make it bigger and better than the two of us could normally do on our own?'" Mr. Dice said. "And Nike has always been about collaboration with its athletes. So we brought in a promotional expert to help promote the U.S. Open and this rivalry in a way that maybe we haven't done in a very long time."

The effort will include print executions in local newspapers, a digital component and outdoor advertising. The effort will also incorporate wild postings and street teams. "We'll also use the viral-video space to make sure that for the next two weeks we continue to push messages celebrating Roger, Rafa, the U.S. Open and New York City," Mr. Dice said.

While Mr. Dice said the campaign "isn't about a shoe launch" and more about "capturing the excitement of tennis in New York for the next two weeks," Nike will use tonight's event to showcase the gear that both players will be wearing during the tournament.

The risk for Nike is that both players don't make it to the finals. American Express had that exact situation unfold a few years back when Andy Roddick, the focus of a major ad effort by Amex leading up to the U.S. Open, lost in the first round.

Win or lose, its good PR
"We're keeping our fingers crossed that they do meet -- that's the whole point, and we honestly think that they will, especially the way they have been playing lately," Mr. Dice said. "[But] even if they don't, it will be a great moment for Nike, tennis and these two players and the city of New York."

Eric Wright, VP-research and development, Joyce Julius & Associates, which specializes in measuring the impact of corporate sponsorships, said the campaign will ensure Nike gets seen during the tournament.

"Those ads serve a lot of purposes, and one of them is ensuring that [Nike] doesn't get shut out of the tournament," he said. "I suppose you run the risk of a little egg on the face if they don't have a great performance, but we're still talking about that Amex deal all these years later. We're still talking about the brand -- it's not in the greatest way, but it's still generating buzz all this time later."

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