Rory McIlroy’s might be Nike’s $100m superstar but the global giant was reportedly not best pleased when it realised it missed a golden opportunity to sponsor his bid for an Olympic medal in Brazil this summer
That’s the view of Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) President, Pat Hickey, who revealed yesterday that the US sportswear behemoth was offered the chance to sponsor the Irish Olympic team's gear in Rio, guaranteeing them the sight of McIlroy sporting the Nike swoosh for golf's long-awaited return to the Games.
Instead, the deal went to Boston-based New Balance for what Hickey said was "peanuts" compared to the $20m a year that Nike are paying the four-time major champion.
“Before Rory decided whether he’d declare for Team GB or Ireland we put our team gear out to contract,” Hickey explained at the “100 days to Rio” presentation in a Dublin city centre hotel.
“Just in case he declared for us, we went to Nike in the UK and told them we might have Rory. But they just dismissed us out of hand and now they regret it, I believe.
“I’m told that the Nike guys nearly collapsed when they heard what happened and that they’d missed a golden opportunity.
“Rory’s agent came to us and said, ‘What about Nike?’ And I said, ‘What about them? They had the opportunity and they missed it.’”
Nike's European media arm did not reply to a request for comment on Hickey's claims, which is not much of a surprise considering they missed out on some relatively "cheap" publicity in Rio.
Hickey could not divulge the size of the New Balance deal but according to those familiar with the Irish Olympic set up it is believed to be worth between €1m-€2m — less than what McIlroy makes with Nike every month.
“It would have been peanuts compared to what they are paying Rory," Hickey said in reference to the Nike deal that court documents revealed during his court battle with his former manager was worth $20m a year to the Co Down man.
"I wonder if whoever made that decision at Nike UK is still around and whether not they kicked it back to head office in the US.”
If McIlroy wins a medal and enjoys his Olympic Games experience, he may well make himself available for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, when Nike will again have an opportunity to bid for the Team Ireland contract again.
Whatever about that, the only Nike gear he will be able to use in Brazil will be his clubs and his shoes, which are exempt as “technical equipment.”
Hickey said: “The rules of the Olympics are very clear. You must wear the team gear as selected by the NOC (National Olympic Council).
“It’s the same for every country. If you want to participate in the Olympics, you have to adhere to the rules.
“Rory can’t be any different to the boxers or the track and field or rugby players. Rafael Nadal wears the Spanish gear (Joma), even though he is with Nike.
“The situation is he must wear a New Balance cap, shirt, top, trousers, and accessories such as the belt and sunglasses.
“But the colour is tone on tone. So if it’s a blue shirt, it is a blue NB emblem.”
Playing in a major tournament without Nike branding is nothing unusual for McIlroy, who had to wear non-branded Ryder Cup clothing at Gleneagles as part of Team Europe.
As for the display of any awkward symbols for a native of Northern Ireland, McIlroy won't be sporting a national flag of any kind, just over three years after telling the Daily Mail he felt more British than Irish.
“The golf bag is neutral with no branding," Hickey said. "It will just have the Team Ireland logo with the shamrock and the [OIympic] rings.”
He was never considered as a candidate to be Ireland’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, despite claims to the contrary.
After announcing the Belfast boxer and twice Olympic bronze medallist Paddy Barnes would carry the flag in 100 days' time, Hickey insisted that McIlroy was never considered for the role.
"There was a totally incorrect story published," he said. "Crazy. I was asked if Rory would be considered (as flag-bearer) if he declared and my answer was that every athlete on the team would be considered to carry the flag.
"We would never ask Rory to do it because of the pressures. Paddy is different. He is from the nationalist end of Belfast and he doesn't care. He is delighted to do it. And even if he was from here, we wouldn’t put the pressure on him because he is a superstar golfer and we want him to arrive, concentrate, have no hassle and go and do his thing.”
Neither McIlroy, his management nor team captain Paul McGinley would ever have entertained any other scenario.
Mcilroy is the 5/1 joint favourite for Olympic gold alongside American Jordan Spieth with world No 1 Jason Day the next best bet.
Understandably, Hickey has high hopes of success.
He said: “We very much hope hat Rory wins a medal and we hope it will be gold. He didn’t do as well as he expected in the Masters and I’d say he will be much more relaxed and calm in Rio."
As for the suitability of golf as an Olympic sport and the decisions by Adam Scott, Vijay Singh and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel to make themselves unavailable, Hickey believes the sport's Olympic future is still bright.
"I knew Adam Scott and Vijay Singh weren't playing from day one," he said. "When golf was bidding to get into the Olympics, it was a different age group that was at the forefront. You had Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington leading the way.
"I remember the golf presentation and Padraig was part of the team at the presentation. But there is a whole new age group of golfers now and they make up their own mind.
"I believe it will still be a great competition. They said the same about tennis and that has worked very well. And golf will work. It needs to get momentum and get legs and it will go very well. It will take off, I believe."