Phil Knight Discusses State Of College Basketball, Nike's Relationship With Sport
Nike co-Founder & Chair Emeritus PHIL KNIGHT can be "withdrawn and shy, even downright reclusive," but with this week's PK80 Invitational in Portland, it will be "impossible for Knight to hide in plain sight," according to Seth Davis of THE ATHLETIC. The tournament will feature 16 Nike-sponsored college basketball teams that will "face off in two eight-team brackets spanning two arenas." The event is in honor of Knight's 80th birthday, and while he "doesn’t turn 80 until February ... Knight has never let a small detail get in the way of an effective marketing strategy." Below are excerpts of a Q&A with Knight, some of which have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Thanksgiving Week is always big for college basketball tournaments. This year, the biggest is going to be the PK80 Invitational. ... How did this come about?
Knight: It started with a conversation between [Michigan State AD] MARK HOLLIS and [Nike Dir of College Sports Marketing] KIT MORRIS. Kit deals with all of the schools. He said Mark wants to do this and wants to know if I would be OK with it. I said, “I’d be honored as hell, but I don’t think he’ll be able to pull it off.” I’m still not sure it’s going to happen.
Q: How significant was college basketball to the growth of Nike?
Knight: Huge. Basketball product is one of our biggest segments. Early on it was probably our biggest segment for a long time.
Q: What do you think about college basketball right now? The marketplace is cluttered. Football is huge. There’s a million channels for everything. How would you diagnose the health of college basketball?
Knight: Obviously it’s still hugely popular. ... March Madness is one of the biggest things. The NCAA makes a lot of money out of that. So I think it’s got some concerns about the FBI and that sort of thing, but overall if it avoids a calamity there, then it’s in good shape.
Q: When you saw what the U.S. Attorney claims to have found, did that shock you? Or did you kind of assume that's the way things were done?
Knight: There were several coaches that got indicted. There was not a legal indictment but an emotional indictment that went along with it, and that was the NCAA. The FBI was basically doing their job for them. They let it get away from them, so it became more widespread through the decades, I think. So to the extent that’s true, it’s gotten worse over the decades, at least according to my conversations with a lot of coaches I trust.
Q: The nexus for a lot of this activity is the relationship between sneaker companies, schools, AAU programs and grassroots events. Nike was really in on that early. Is it too late to put that genie in the bottle? Do you have any regrets about what has become of Nike’s initial thrust?
Knight: We’ve tried to play by the rules the whole time. I don’t believe that we’ve ever paid any player to go to a college or do any of those things. I hope we’re ethical, but even more than that, it’s suicidal for us. We’ve got all of the major teams. If you start doing that, we’re going to piss everybody off. So no, I don’t think it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. All they’d have to do is say here are the rules and enforce them (THEATHLETIC.com, 11/21).