Spencer Potter, 15, has his eye on the ball when it comes to becoming a professional soccer player.
He’s been playing the game since he was three, practises several times a week with an elite team in Mississauga, Ont., and dreams of joining a pro team.
So when Nike released a limited edition of soccer cleats last fall — the Zoom Mercurial Superfly 9 Elite CR7 Firm Ground Cleats — Spencer wanted in.
“I thought they were really cool … super bright and electric looking,” he told Go Public, after demonstrating a few impressive soccer skills at a park in east Toronto. “And they have a better grip, so the ball feels nicer when it hits your foot.”
But the biggest attraction, he says — the cleats were endorsed by soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He’s one of the best in the world,” Spencer said, and this was the last signature shoe Nike was going to make with him.
Nike’s ads tout the cleats’ advanced technology, providing an extreme lightness and grippy, grid mesh for improved ball control.
Spencer approached his parents and offered to ante up $150 toward the shoes, which came with a hefty price tag of $423 after taxes. His parents agreed to pay the difference, as a special 15th birthday gift.
But just 10 weeks later, the fabric on Spencer’s left cleat started to tear.
Nike declined to offer a replacement, telling the Potters the issue was not due to a material or manufacturing fault.
“I was super frustrated,” Spencer said. “It was a lot of money for me.”
Go Public sent photos of the torn cleat to several Toronto-area shoe repair experts: all said the damage should not have occurred so early and were surprised by Nike’s poor response.
“It should last much longer,” said Lorena Agolli, a cobbler who’s owned the shoe and boot repair store Sole Survivor in Toronto for almost 10 years.
She says companies like Nike that use the cult of celebrity to build a following need to stand by their products.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, well, not our problem,'” Agolli said. “But really, it should be your problem because you are the one that created this product. You’re the one that put it out there, convincing people to buy it.”
After Go Public got involved, Nike reached the Potters directly and offered a refund.
The company declined an on-camera interview with Go Public. Instead, Nike said in an emailed statement the “quality and performance of [its] products are of utmost importance” and that it believes Spencer’s cleat damage was a one-off.
The first 10 weeks that Spencer owned his new cleats, he proudly wore them during practices on indoor turf. They were soft and comfortable, he said, and gave him confidence on the field.
But one night as he was using a small toothbrush to clean his prized possession, the brush’s bristles fell through the shoe’s fabric.
A tear had developed, right where the Nike swoosh logo attached to the shoe’s ultralight fabric.
“It just felt like a waste of money at that point,” he said.
His dad called Nike customer service, and thus began more running around than an actual soccer game.
First, a Nike rep told Frank Potter he had to take the shoes back to the store.
When he did, the retailer said Nike was responsible and sent him back to the company.
Frank was sent back and forth a few times, but he finally got a case file number from Nike to start a return process and paid $18 to courier the shoes back to the company for inspection.
But two weeks later, Nike shipped the shoes back with a note, saying the product was not covered under warranty — which allows returns after up to 30 days, or longer if the product is unworn and unwashed, or due to manufacturer defect — and that there would be no replacement offered.
“I can’t believe they offer a shoe that’s $400-plus and it falls apart in less than three months,” Potter said.
Frank called Nike’s customer service line yet again. This time, an agent said Spencer’s shoes showed excessive wear and tear — a reason Frank doesn’t buy.
“Spencer takes care of his shoes,” he said. “He cleans them after practice. Cleans them after a game. He’s always drying them out … it’s frustrating.”
Agolli says, in her opinion, part of the problem is poor design.
“The reason most likely the material broke is because the heavier Nike rubber logo [the swoosh] was added on top of the thinner fibre material … right at the bend of the foot,” she said.
“So while [Spencer] is playing and bending his foot, the materials are sort of fighting against one another and the light fibre can’t carry the heavier rubber to sustain it.”
Nike did not comment on Agolli’s assessment.
The market for athletic footwear is huge — with billions of dollars at stake as companies like Nike, Adidas and Puma battle for fan devotion.
According to the company’s annual report for 2021-22, Nike is the world’s largest seller of athletic footwear and apparel.
“We believe our research, design and development efforts are key factors in our success,” says the report, which also says 94 per cent of its footwear is produced by contract factories in Vietnam, Indonesia and China.
Agolli says when a shoe like Spencer’s fails, it may be due to the mass production.
“There’s no way that you can always guarantee that these thousands of shoes that are coming out are actually going to be the quality that they are saying that they will be,” she said. “It’s mostly synthetic materials just glued on, and a machine does all the work.”
But mass production isn’t hurting the Nike brand. That same report says Nike “achieved record revenues” of $46.7 billion US for the 2022 fiscal year.
Nike has long aligned itself with star athletes such as Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Kobe Bryant.
Amazon Studios just released Air, a movie directed by Ben Affleck that tells the story of Nike’s sponsorship deal with then-rookie Michael Jordan, a deal that paved the way for the company’s world-conquering shoes.
Frank says his son is no different from kids everywhere — he idolizes celebrity athletes and trusted the shoes endorsed by Ronaldo would be high quality.
“He wants to wear the stuff everyone else is wearing. He wants to be like the superstars,” he said.
That pressure to buy in to celebrity trends has never been greater, says Simon Fraser University marketing professor Judy Zaichkowsky.
“It’s huge,” she said. “Nobody [Spencer’s] age has grown up without the internet, without knowing what everybody else around them is doing, without wanting to be one of these influencers.”
For over 40 years, Zaichkowsky has studied what makes people buy certain products.
She says kids become convinced that athletic footwear endorsed by celebrities will help them play better and maybe provide a leg up with competition on the field.
“Your peers are going to think you’re special because you have these shoes on,” Zaichkowsky said. “And these shoes are going to make you feel better.”
Spencer says what should have been a great experience has left him disillusioned with the Nike brand. “I just think it’s unfortunate.”
After his cleats ripped, he needed new ones to keep practising, so his parents bought him a second pair in January — Nike again, but a different model, expecting they’d be reimbursed for the first set of cleats.
The new shoes cost $412. Within three months, the soles on both cleats started to crack.
“I haven’t had time to send those ones back,” Frank said.
In their offer to the Potters, Nike said it would refund the cost of the second pair of cleats, too. “We value this consumer’s brand loyalty,” Nike’s statement said. “We want to find the best Nike cleats available for [Spencer], based on his individual style of play.”
But Frank says it’s not enough to win them over.
“We’re moving on from Nike.”