Nike Stock Logo

Nike reports fiscal first0quarter 2015 earnings on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.

On your feet, Nike (NYSE:NKE) investors! The global footwear and athletic apparel behemoth is set to announce fiscal first-quarter 2015 results Thursday after the bell, so it's time to work out what we should expect heading in to the report.

Nike doesn't generally provide specific earnings guidance, but that doesn't stop the folks on Wall Street from giving it their best shot. Analysts, on average, are expecting revenue to increase roughly 12.4% to $7.83 billion -- a fair assumption considering Nike last quarter said reported futures orders increased 11%, or 12% excluding currency changes. And that, they say, should translate to a 2% jump in earnings to $0.88 per share.

But it helps to dig a little deeper to understand Nike's business, which has much more to it than just revenue and earnings. Here are three specific things I'll be watching.

1. SG&A, gross margin
I'll admit this is technically two things, but bear with me. If you're wondering why Nike's bottom line isn't expected to keep pace with its revenue growth, note that management last quarter said selling, general, and administrative expenses are expected to grow around 12% this year. For that, investors can largely thank Nike's strategic "demand creation" investments, which management expects to grow at roughly 30% in Q1 as they continue to leverage enthusiasm surrounding last quarter's World Cup. But considering Nike boasted returns on invested capital of 25% last fiscal year, most investors are willing to give them a pass here.

In the meantime, it's important to keep an eye on Nike's gross margin -- strength in which can partly show Nike's ability to use innovative products and strong brands to command higher prices. In fiscal 2014, Nike grew gross margin by 120 basis points to 44.8% and capped a 170-basis-point increase last quarter to 45.6%. For the current quarter and full fiscal year 2015, Nike told investors to expect gross margin to expand by another 75 basis points from a combination of optimizing pricing, a shift in sales mix to premium products, and continued growth in its burgeoning direct-to-consumer, or DTC, segment.

2. Key growth drivers
Speaking of which, we should also listen for updates on Nike's key growth drivers. Some are harder to quantify, like its investments in "product innovation," from which Nike CEO Mark Parker insisted three months ago they're "seeing clear returns." Similarly, Parker says Nike is working hard to grow its digital Nike+ community from "tens of millions to hundreds of millions of members." By growing Nike+, the company is able to foster all-important relationships with its consumers and thereby increase brand loyalty.

But others are more clear, including growth in e-commerce. Nike made significant investments last year to create a more seamless shopping experience on nike.com, which helped its online business increase over 40% in fiscal 2014. Better yet, that growth even accelerated with each passing quarter. Investors should obviously hope for Nike to at least sustain that momentum as e-commerce continues to become a more integral part of consumers' lives.

In addition, watch for results of Nike's investments to expand its high-margin DTC business. Last quarter, DTC sales growth accelerated to 27%, which pushed the DTC segment's annual revenue past the $5 billion mark for the first time. In the end, DTC not only allows Nike to bolster margins by cutting out the middle man, but also enables it to more effectively communicate its message to consumers than product placements in third-party retail stores allow. 

3. Progress in the Middle Kingdom
Finally, investors should expect to hear about the progress Nike is making with its business reset in China. The country of more than 1.3 billion people comprised just 10% of Nike Brand sales last year, so there's obviously massive potential to grow there. But last quarter's futures growth in China only stood at 6%, lagging well behind the company's stated goal of returning the market to sustained double-digit revenue growth.

That said, Nike has seen recent progress in China, including successful testing of new merchandising concepts at Chinese DTC locations, which drove Q4 comparable-store sales growth of 22%. If Nike can build on that progress to eventually realize the true potential of the Middle Kingdom, the financial rewards for shareholders could be staggering.

Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.