Woe betide the investor darling that misses its estimates. Nike (NYSE: NKE) rattled the market by falling notably short of the earnings it was expected to net. This was uncharacteristic for the company, a serial estimates beater, so its shares got roughed up in after-hours trading. Nike has been an investor favorite for a long time. Hopefully for the previously smitten, the romance isn't over yet.

Always expected to be a champ
Nike's revenue for its fiscal fourth quarter was more or less in line with expectations at $6.5 billion. It was net that disappointed, coming in at $549 million on the back of higher raw materials prices and other factors that affected costs. That meant EPS of $1.17, or a full $0.20 short of the expected $1.37. The net figure was also down a bit from the $560 million the company earned the previous quarter.

That quarter-on-quarter drop in bottom line was Nike's first since 2009. Compounding this, the company has a miles-long track record of meeting or beating estimates; prior to this set of results, it had done so in 22 of its previous 23 quarters. In other words, for over five years. Not many publicly traded companies -- or private ones, for that matter -- can say the same.

It's no wonder, then, that Nike's shares stumbled by 13% in after-hours trading following the earnings announcement. The market isn't used to any significant disappointment from the company. Nike, then, is a victim of success. Few enterprises, no matter how well run, can satisfy high expectations each and every reporting period. Everyone has a bad quarter once in a while.

Don't panic
In spite of the earnings miss, Nike's quarter wasn't a disaster. Yes, net was down, but the drop was hardly tragic, at 2% quarter on quarter. That's too slim a percentage to deserve the pummeling the stock received after the market close.

There weren't really too many scary numbers in the latest set of figures, save for a rise in inventory. Over the one-year period ending May 31, that metric grew 23% to total $3.4 billion. OK, that's not encouraging, but at the same time it's hardly enough to yell "Fire!" in a crowded stadium. Revenue for fiscal 2012 came in at $24.1 billion, which was 16% more than that of the previous year. Inventory growth exceeding that of revenue by 7 percentage points, while certainly a cause for concern, can't be considered out of control.

Getting richer and less indebted
That full-year revenue figure was, incidentally, the highest in the company's history, a lovely note that was drowned out by the shrill panic over the quarterly figures. Meanwhile, none of the other important full-year numbers look all that bad and some are quite good. Net margin was down but not worryingly so; it came in at 9.1% for fiscal 2012, as opposed to the 10.2% of last year.

Nike's light debt burden got even lighter, with long-term obligations dropping 17% to $228 million over the same time frame.

Meaning the firm now has over 10 times more of the green stuff than it has debt. That's a fine position to be in, particularly for investors. Nike's dividend probably isn't going anywhere and it might even increase, which would be a good move for the company if it's eager to wipe the memory of this earnings report and/or boost its stock price.

Several paces ahead
Nike is still lapping the competition -- there are few, if any, better stock buys in the athletic apparel game. Earlier this year, for example, the company replaced its longtime rival adidas (OTC: ADDY.PK) as the official outfitter and fan apparel purveyor of the NFL. There are a lot of teams with a lot of players in that league, not to mention armies of fans, and Nike's got them all locked in thanks to its five-year exclusivity deal with the league.

It's also got a far-ranging product line running the gamut from socks to baseball gloves to golf hats, making for a huge catalog that companies focused on narrower segments of the market can't touch.

Besides, even those more focused players -- some of which have been investor favorites recently -- have neither the long record of success nor the attractive valuations enjoyed by Nike. Under Armour (NYSE: UA) has been showing healthy growth rates of late and boasts good future potential, but its stock looks expensive at a one-year forward P/E over 30, against expected EPS growth of 24% or so.

The same can be said of yoga clothing specialist lululemon athletica (Nasdaq: LULU). Even after its stock got a Nike-style pounding on the back of speculation that notorious short-seller David Einhorn had bought a stake, it looked overpriced. Its one-year forward P/E is 28, while EPS growth is anticipated to be 19%.

And those figures for Nike? Based on the stock's most recent closing price, the numbers are 14.5 and 20%. Plus, don't forget that the company pays a dividend that might just rise in the near future. Last but not least, it's consistently profitable and there's no reason to suspect that'll change anytime soon. So it had a bad quarter, who cares? Nike's a long-term winner. Never count it out.

In its sector it also dominates not only its domestic market, but the world. For those who like such global success stories -- and what red-blooded investor doesn't? -- we feature several of them in our FREE report "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World," which is a mere click away at this link.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.