Nike lives strong after Armstrong

Lance Armstrong speaks to delegates at the World Cancer Congress in Montreal Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. AP Photo

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) At long last, Nike (NKE) has severed ties with Lance Armstrong. "It is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner," the company said in a statement.

That looks like a big event -- but is it?

That the company needed to disassociate itself from Armstrong has been obvious for months now. When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency assembled 24 witnesses and over a thousand pages of evidence against the cyclist, what had been Nike's loyalty began to look like stupidity. But when protestors surrounded Nike's Oregon headquarters -- led by Armstrong's former teammate Paul Willerton -- the game was surely up.

Three strange things emerge from this sad saga:

1. Nike must be bigger than its athletes

For all its associations with Armstrong, the company's stock has scarcely budged. Investors don't care about the elite athlete; he isn't -- wasn't -- what made the company profitable. Perhaps that is because cycling still isn't a mainstream sport. Or perhaps it is because, however useful headliners may be, consumers are smart enough to know that when they spend money they are buying products, not celebrities.

2. Stars don't own their fans

Celebrity endorsements thrive on the assumption that there's a virtuous circle: Promoting athletes brings fans to the brand which then further promotes the athlete. But celebrities don't own their fans and can lose them in an instant. What that means, from a business perspective, is that celebrities may rent their followers to a company but never own them. And it is in the nature of competitive sports that, sooner or later, most of them lose something: Status, reputation, credibility. As such, they prove a highly volatile investment. Making decent products the right way remains a core business, however it's decorated.

3. Charity isn't whitewash

Armstrong strangely seemed to believe that people loved him as a cancer survivor and would love him without his Tour de France victories. Wrong. There are millions of cancer survivors out there, many a good deal more appealing and inspiring than Lance. His foundation didn't and won't keep his personal stock high. As one commentator put it, "Lance has been good for cancer - but cancer has been good for Lance."

There's nothing to celebrate here. The myth spun by Armstrong's memoirs -- that he started off a jerk but was redeemed by cancer -- has just been rewritten: He started a jerk and cancer made him more of one. This is scarcely an uplifting correction. But the degree to which Nike's value hasn't flickered shows just how unimportant these high profile athletes can be. Sic transit gloria -- glory fades.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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