Rory McIlroy's blockbuster deal with Nike was set in motion in September 2011. At 21, McIlroy had already established himself as a talent for the ages with a blowout victory at the U.S. Open three months earlier. While at home in Northern Ireland he summoned agent Conor Ridge for a surreptitious meeting that would change McIlroy's future and eventually the sports landscape too.
Ridge's Horizon Sports Management had done an excellent job guiding the career of McIlroy's good friend Graeme McDowell, but Horizon was decidedly boutique. Yet Ridge was a big strategic thinker, and he came to McIlroy at a pivotal moment: McIlroy had grown disenchanted with the stewardship of his agent, Chubby Chandler, whose public profile had grown as oversized as his waistline. The Chandler model was to scoop up as many endorsement deals as possible, not worrying how they fit together; thus young McIlroy had come to be plastered with logos, golf's version of a NASCAR ride. The largest and most egregious of these belonged to Jumeirah, a Dubai-based hotel chain that had little name recognition in most of the places where McIlroy teed it up.
So on that afternoon, Ridge sat on McIlroy's living room couch for four hours, both of them sipping coffee and laying out a vision for the future. McIlroy wanted a younger, cooler image. He wanted to transcend golf. A point he made more than once was that he wanted a cleaner, uncluttered look. When it was Ridge's turn to talk, he offered a detailed 20-year plan for McIlroy's career. They quickly realized that they saw the world, and McIlroy's future, in remarkably similar ways. It was like falling in love on a first date.
McIlroy officially decamped to Ridge on Oct. 21, 2011, a thunderbolt in golf business circles. Taking control of his career seemed to energize McIlroy, and five months later he summited the World Ranking. By August he had won a second major championship, putting him ahead of Tiger Woods's pace. It was a particularly felicitous time to blossom into the fresh-scrubbed face of an international sport. McIlroy's biggest endorsement deal—with apparel and sunglass maker Oakley—was expiring at the end of 2012. His contract with Titleist ran through 2013, and history was on his side should he want to extricate himself: Titleist has never ponied up the big money it takes to keep the game's biggest names, having parted with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval at the apex of their popularity. At Titleist, the product is the star, not any one player. It's hard to fault the strategy—those golf balls sell by the bushel no matter who is appearing in the company's ads.
Throughout the summer Ridge labored to map out McIlroy's future in the marketplace, quietly initiating discussions with all the golfer's current endorsement partners and those who might wish to be in the future. Nike was a serious player all along. "Our team is always developing relationships, at all levels of golf," says Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf, choosing her words carefully. "Put it this way: We've been a fan of Rory's for a long time."
McIlroy was similarly smitten. "I've always been a fan of the company, going back to when I was a kid," he says. "I liked the image they projected. They've been associated with so many great sportsmen, and even now I can remember a lot of the adverts from 10 or 15 years ago.
"It always seemed like a good fit to me. Golf needs a younger and more athletic image, and Nike has always had that. I'm young enough. I'm not sure I'm athletic enough. But I'll try!"
Titleist did make a big push to keep McIlroy, offering what sources at the company say was a five-year, $50 million deal. TaylorMade came in with a similar offer. "Turns out we weren't even in the right ballpark," says a TaylorMade executive.
At the Ryder Cup, in late September, Ridge paid a visit to McIlroy in his hotel room to deliver one message: A blockbuster deal with Nike was there to be had. A few weeks after his 2-and-1 singles win over Keegan Bradley at Medinah, McIlroy slipped into Fort Worth to visit the Oven, Nike Golf's research and development lab. It was a fraught occasion. As excited as Nike staffers were at the prospect of adding McIlroy, the deal could've blown up if he hated the equipment. There was an undercurrent of awkwardness at the outset of the visit. "When you put a new golf club in an athlete's hand for the first time, you want them to be impressed," says Rick Nichols, Nike Golf's longtime field manager. With a small chuckle, he adds, "Especially this time."
For two days McIlroy tested everything in the Nike line. The clubs had already been built to his specifications. "We had done our homework," Nichols says. "But one thing we don't try to do is simply copy the specs. Our goal is to improve what the athlete has."