Gatorade, the No. 1 sports drink, took a Twitter jab at its closest rival after a broken air conditioning system caused Powerade endorser LeBron James to cramp up and miss the conclusion of the National Basketball Association Finals opener.
With the temperature above 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius) near the court at San Antonio’s AT&T Center two nights ago because of an electrical failure that knocked out the air conditioning, the Miami Heat’s James missed the final 3 minutes, 59 seconds with leg cramps as the Spurs went on a 16-3 run to win 110-95.
James, the four-time league Most Valuable Player, is the top sponsor for Coca-Cola Co.’s Powerade, the No. 2 sports drink behind PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade. After the game ended, Gatorade took to Twitter in response to fans who thought James was one of its endorsers.
“We were waiting on the sidelines, but he prefers to drink something else,” Gatorade said in reaction to one Twitter comment.
“The person cramping wasn’t our client,” it said in another. “Our athletes can take the heat.”
Gatorade recognized that product perception is important, according to Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
“As an endemic sponsor, one who is at the core of the sport, performance matters,” Swangard said yesterday in a phone interview. “If your shoe fails on the court, that looks bad on the shoe brand. If your endorser is struggling with cramps and appears to be using one product over another, there’s risk to the perception of the product’s quality.”
Swangard said the social media discussion probably wouldn’t cause people to immediately change their sports drink buying habits, but James’s struggles did create an interesting dialogue.
“Marketers want to engage consumers and this provides a unique vehicle for it,” he said.
Gatorade has about 69 percent of the U.S. sports drink market compared with about 29 percent for Powerade, according to Beverage Digest, a trade publication that tracks sales.
Gatorade is an official NBA sponsor, with its logo on coolers and cups behind every NBA team bench. Players such as James who endorse different products often remove the labels or have them covered by towels to avoid showing an affiliation with them. James actually drinks Gatorade on the bench, removing the labels, according to ESPN.
James, who led Miami with 25 points, said yesterday he had been given 2 1/2 bags of IV fluids since the game and that his legs still were sore. He also said he’s dealt with cramping since high school, including during the 2012 NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He declined to address Gatorade’s remarks.
“I’m not even going to say their name,” James said at a news conference. “I’m not going to give them a light in the finals.”
Powerade did not discuss the heat or James’s health on Twitter during the game and in a statement supporting James yesterday did not mention his cramps.
Gatorade, which has James’s teammate Dwyane Wade as an endorser, issued an apology.
“Our apologies for our response to fans’ tweets during last night’s Heat vs. Spurs game,” it said in an e-mailed statement. “We got caught up in the heat of the battle. As a longtime partner of the Miami Heat, we support the entire team.”
Swangard said he was surprised Gatorade, which is typically aggressive on social media, “went after LeBron in a way that I’m sure the league was feeling a little funny about.”
“It just felt like, in this case, they went a little too far,” Swangard said.
There’s very little difference between the two drinks when it comes to their value for exercise, according to Lewis Maharam, a New York physician who is chairman of the International Marathon Medical Directors Association.
“It’s essentially the same drink: salt,” said Maharam, former medical director of the New York City Marathon. “They’re absolutely both equally good.”
Some people sweat heavily and others lightly, said Maharam, who suggested that athletes such as James can keep electrolytes in their body by simply ingesting salt packets, such as those found at fast-food restaurants, before and during competition.
“Someone who is a heavy sweater, that’s going to prevent them from cramping,” Maharam said in a phone interview.
James, who Maharam has never treated, may also have had a magnesium deficiency, which can cause cramping, Maharam said.
The two-time defending champion Heat probably won’t face the same problem during Game 2 tomorrow. The AT&T Center’s air conditioning has been fixed and is fully operational.