Who could forget Nike’s political stunt in favour of the kneelers supporting BLM? Recall the millions it paid Colin Kaepernick to tell us about the bravery of those sacrificing everything if they believed in it. Social justice is a thang at Nike, at least among the marketing department. Naturally, it provoked a lot of anger from real Americans who served their country, some who paid for it with their lives. Taya Kyle, the war widow of legendary sniper Chris Kyle, wrote a stern letter to Nike which was on the mark.
Now some are taking Nike to task over the sponsorship contracts it holds with superstars, especially females. Nike does not appear to sacrifice everything, especially when it believes it.
Six-time track and field Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix penned an op-ed to The NY Times telling of the cold realities of re-contracting while considering having a child. Sadly the Nike contracting team is probably staffed with icy cold hard-nosed realists compared to the cuddly socially active marketing department.
33-yo Felix said Nike wanted to contract her 70% less after her pregnancy. She wanted the original value to stay in force even if she suffered slight underperformance in the months after childbirth. Her request is totally understandable. Surely Nike could have done some celebrity mother and child adverts to pluck at the heartstrings of the average person? Get all those mothers with newborns to sport a pair of Nike kicks and leotards as they push their strollers to yoga. Just the sort of mush that a marketing department craves.
High-end endorsements are extremely hard to get. The bigger the payout the higher the pressure and expectations thrust upon the star. Contracts are driven by athletic performance and the ability to drive sales off the back of it. These performance-based targets are likely to be written clearly in black and white. It sounds like Felix needed a much better sports agent to negotiate such clauses. Serena Williams had a child and her Nike endorsements rolled on unaffected. The tennis champ even narrated a “dream crazier” advert solely looking at women in sport.
Is Felix’s 70% haircut anything more than Nike’s endorsement team taking a view on her future performance when it comes to which brand ambassadors will keep driving sales? It must have made a judgement call that Felix was past her prime. If we looked at all the females sponsored by Nike, what rank is she within the long list of names? Usain Bolt hung up his golden boots at age 30.
It is unclear how many millions that Felix received from Nike every year. Sponsorship is slightly different from employment. There are lots of caveats in sports contracts which ensure that athletes behave responsibly “outside” the game to reflect the values of the organisation. One might feel some pity that the choice to have a child ruined her contract terms but Nike has not done anything illegal.
It is unlikely that any two Nike superstar endorsement contracts are the same. Michael Jordan ended up with his own brand within Nike. Undoubtedly he was paid better than an up and coming college NFL star. It is most likely that Serena Williams’ contract had many different term and conditions to Allyson Felix. If Felix signed her contract she took on all of the legalities within it, including the fine print. Unlike an employment contract, sponsorships terms can change on a whim.
The Nike sponsorship Rolodex is undoubtedly littered with stars – male and female – in their 30s, re-contracted at far lower rates than when they were in their prime. Felix wouldn’t be alone. Age, rather than maternity was probably the bigger driver for the Nike decision makers. The world of sports is brutal. Unless one is a Valentino Rossi of MotoGP fame, a Roger Federer/Serena Williams in tennis or an Usain Bolt in track & field, ongoing sponsorship tends to fade as these stars get put out to pasture.
Yet we are not Nike and we do not have the full facts of how it grants its limited marketing dollars. Perhaps we should ask why Adidas or Puma aren’t beating a path to Felix’s door to contract her and get some mileage out of the controversy? Nike knows the endorsement field probably better than most. The risk of her defection is minimal at best, therefore, Nike can drive hard bargains. Take it or leave it.