Some Things Are Bigger Than Business
When the news that Kobe Bryant tragically passed at 41 after a horrible helicopter crash arrived on my phone on Monday at 3:40AM in Singapore, I was already exhausted. This put the emotional nail in my coffin and I gave into the night. When I woke up, I immediately bombarded myself with emotional tributes from my own friends, those who were close to him, and anyone who was touched by his greatness. I also learned that eight others tragically died in the crash, including Kobe's incredible 13 year old daughter GiGi, junior college baseball coaching legend John Altobelli, Altobelli's wife and daughter Alyssa, GiGi's teammate, and four others. May they all rest in peace.
I would love to continue this post as a tribute to Kobe's greatness, but this is a sports business blog. However, here are some links to phenomenal, emotional, and visceral tributes others have written, said, or posted in honor of Kobe because these recent events are bigger than business.
However, here I am writing about business implications because that is what happens in 2020. The news cycle unfolds at rapid pace, and everyone thinks their opinion is the most important opinion, leading to a lot of good, bad, and ugly takes. I saw a take from my friend on Twitter which essentially said that now it is inevitable that the NBA and Nike will make an insane amount of money in the aftermath of Kobe's passing. This got me thinking, what should these businesses do now that Kobe, as iconic a figure as there ever was, is gone? Should these companies pull their products as a tribute to Bryant, or maybe lower the prices because the demand will still be there when the put the products back up? The answer was and still is unclear, but in the aftermath of his passing we have seen multiple strategies from different companies.
With the NBA, they have not touched their Kobe gear online. They also had every game proceed as if all was normal that night, although the players, coaches and broadcast booths took it into their own hands to respect the passing of a legend, with unfiltered emotion, 8 and 24 second violations, and important monologues from broadcasters. Maybe the NBA decided it was too close to gametime to cancel, or it would have been a logistical nightmare, or they thought their product would help people cope. Who knows? It is important to note here that many believe the Mamba would have wanted the show to go on, but that is merely speculation -- no one can speak for him in this regard. However, none of these games were Lakers games, or even Clippers games. That is because the two were supposed to play one another last night. Ticket prices for that game skyrocketed on reselling websites like Stubhub and Seatgeek. Stubhub decided to take matters into their own hands.
In the end, the NBA also decided to (finally) take the high road and postpone this game to a future date. Because, while every organization was grieving, Kobe only bled purple and gold, and therefore the members of the Lakers organization likely needed more time to process their emotions in a healthy way. The next game the Lakers will play then is on Friday, against the Blazers, with ticket prices again skyrocketing. Stubhub has said they will make the same pledge for this game too.
As for Nike, I know many employees there developed personal relations with Bryant, in all levels and aspects of their corporate structure. There was a rumor circulating around the internet that they did in fact pull their Kobe related merchandise, including jerseys, sneakers and more as a tribute to him. A search for Kobe Bryant on the Nike website would redirect traffic to a remembrance page they put up. The rumor also said they removed their products so that resellers cannot profit off of clothes they bought for retail price which were now inherently more valuable. However, Nike, after realizing this news was circulating said that they did not pull their product, they merely had sold out of it. They said products may still be available at licensed retailers, like the NBA, Foot Locker, etc.
Nike's decision to do absolutely nothing is better than a decision to add stock or immediately create more products to further profit. However, it once again shows that business does not exist for the people, but for the profit, because that is the nature of capitalism. Had they removed all their stock immediately, people would have understood and honestly appreciated it. However, I am going to go out on a limb and bet that doing nothing was a conscious decision. Maybe one executive at Nike said something along the lines of "someone who never knew they needed Kobe's jersey will need one today, and we need to be there for that person," and everyone in that room just nodded along because while that person exists, the bottom line for them is money, not that guys happiness. Maybe one executive did say, "lets reduce the prices to make it more accessible, and show our bottom line is not money." This guy was probably politely reminded that unauthorized resellers will then make the money on these jerseys. Here we see a hypothetical contradiction in that by doing nothing they help the honest consumer, but by lowering prices buyers with bad intentions will get ahold of Kobe gear.
This is why Kobe's passing is bigger than business. Kobe touched an uncountable number of people's hearts and souls, not just the profits of his sponsors and organizations. The Lakers game was cancelled out of respect for its human employees that are the backbone of that great organization, thereby ignoring the inflated prices and profit the NBA would make. Why the other games were played, only God knows. I guess the player's relationship with Kobe did not merit cancellation because Kobe did not have friendships with the other employees. And although StubHub took a the moral stand and donated proceeds to Bryant's charity, the market remained unchanged. Hopefully Nike can prove my cynicism wrong, because I know the employees who knew him are mourning with the rest of us, and understand how important he was to all. The Kobe 5 Protro, a sneaker which honors his fifth and final title, was supposed to be released February 7 before his sudden passing. As of now, the release has been postponed. This is the right move so far. Now, Nike also must find a way to make this release more than just business. Here are some suggestions: give them away to communities in need, consult Kobe's loved ones (eventually), consult NBA players (active and retired), or donate all the proceeds.
Rest In Peace.