The Great Nike PR Scam
Soccer moms have delivered many election victories to a host of politicians. Now it is time for them to do something for their daughters.
"Save WUSA" homemade signs were being waved at all six World Cup games that I attended at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., during September and October. There was even a "Shame on Nike" on view.
Since the Women's United Soccer Association's announced its demise in September, just before the World Cup Games, I also have read numerous editorials and letters to the editor from fans decrying Nike's failure to support the floundering league.
Nike did provide uniforms for three of the WUSA teams, which may have led young girls and their mothers to buy the brand and assume that the company was providing key corporate support. In fact, however, Nike declined a league invitation to be its exclusive sponsor.
Now, as the league looks for sponsors to bring it back to life, soccer moms and dads should be thinking about putting our money where it will help our daughters. The next time we are tempted to purchase an item with a "swoosh" logo, we should think twice. Where is our money going? Do we want it to support the dreams of boys and men at the expense of our daughters?
As a long-time soccer mom -- whose daughter went on to intern and then work for two league teams -- I cannot even fathom how much money I have spent over the years on Nike running shoes, soccer cleats, shoe bags, shorts, T-shirts, sports bras, watches, and so forth. Why not? Nike has acquired the esteem of girls and young women. One Harris Poll found that Nike was named by 23 percent of respondents as a major supporter of women's sports. No other company came even close when it came to being perceived as a supporter of women's sports.
But here's the reality. In the last year, Nike was willing to enter into a $90 million endorsement deal with Akron, Ohio, high school senior LeBron James based on its anticipation that James would be a top draftee to the National Basketball Association. It gave $90 million to one individual based on his potential. Denver Nuggets rookie Carmelo Anthony got another $21 million after only one year of college basketball. That's $111 million.
Women's soccer league officials estimated that it would take $20 million to save the league for another year. Twenty million dollars to keep the dreams of thousands of little girls alive. Twenty million dollars to give millions of girls and young women a host of soccer role models such as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Abby Wambach.
Sure, Nike pledged to donate $100,000 to 10 communities a year to help build soccer fields. But this spending is small change in a world of $90-million contracts. Nike knows that it takes more than 10 soccer fields across the country to encourage women in sports. And Nike knows that 72 percent of all women think it is "very important" to support women's sports.
A quick look at Nike's home page during the World Cup appeared extremely friendly to women's soccer. The sophisticated Web site allowed Internet surfers to follow the U.S. World Cup team and even offered aspiring players a series of questions designed to tell them which U.S. World Cup player they are most like. What the site does not say, however, is that for the millions of young who play soccer all over the United States this may be the last chance to get to know Mia, Brandi or Abby.
Clearly, Nike, whose headquarters office building in Beaverton, Ore., is named after Mia Hamm, isn't interested in the hopes and aspirations of young girls or women. It is interested in their money. To cultivate female customers -- who make 80 percent of all purchasing decisions according to Nike -- the sports giant has specifically targeted them with focused advertisements around National Girls and Women in Sports Day every February.
It even has a new line of Nike Goddess clothing inspired by female pro athletes that is designed to appeal to a wide range of female athletes. Interestingly, Nike goddesses -- at least in the form of some of those pro soccer players -- earn just $2,500 a year and free "stuff."
Can you imagine Nike even offering that amount to a professional male athlete? It also has redesigned its NikeTown stores to make them more welcoming and comfortable to women. This restructuring decision alone has resulted in a 46 percent increase in the sale of women's apparel and, presumably, a bolstering of Nike's image as a corporation that gets behind women's sports.
In 1995, Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory, launched its highly successful "If You Let Me Play Sports" advertising campaign featuring female athletes talking about how sports had enhanced the lives of young girls in myriad ways from reducing rates of unwanted pregnancies, alcohol and drug use to increasing the odds of their going to college.
But today the spirit behind this campaign seems strictly cynical. For what Nike will pay LeBron James alone, it could have funded an entire league of positive female role models for several seasons. Nike will no longer get my money. I hope it won't get yours.
Karen O'Connor is director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., and a recovering soccer mom.