The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final on Sunday wasn't just a soccer match. Although the undeniable strength, athleticism and spirit displayed on the pitch that day certainly took center stage, the event came to symbolize so much more because of what led up to it, including female empowerment, the fight for equal pay, LGBTQ+ rights, the legitimacy of women's sports and, well, Nike.
The biggest sports brand in the world made a massive investment in women's soccer this year that paid off despite its competitor, Adidas, being the official World Cup sponsor. Nike sponsored 14 of the 24 teams in the tournament, including the U.S. and the Netherlands, who won gold and silver, respectively. Throughout the tournament, more minutes were played and more goals were scored in Nike boots than in those by any other brand. Though we couldn’t actually see them (no one pulled a Brandi Chastain), we were told that all of the players on the pitch Sunday were wearing Nike sports bras as well. Nike also beat Adidas in social media mentions.
And, yes, all of that visibility is already driving sales: Nike's USA women's home jersey became the number-one-selling soccer jersey, men's or women's, ever sold on nike.com in one season; sales of women's apparel pertaining to the tournament are up more than 150% over the last Women's World Cup in 2015; and the exposure is also driving sales of "kits, high performance bras and lifestyle extensions," according to data provided by the Portland, Oregon-based company.
"We can feel the World Cup's energy and impact throughout our growing women's business. Female athletes worldwide are engaging with sport like never before," said Rosemary St. Clair, VP/GM, Nike Women, in a statement. "Whether it's unprecedented sell-through on national team kits, popularity for high-performance bras, or global impressions of our campaign, we're ecstatic about how this summer has contributed to the acceleration of our women's offense at Nike."
For Nike, the final game was the culmination of extensive preparation to leverage the Women's World Cup as a marketing opportunity. The goal: to bring attention to its increased focus on its women's business, from debuting a new range of innovative sports bras, to collaborating with four up-and-coming female designers, to unveiling another one of its inspiring, tear-jerking commercials mere minutes after the U.S. win became official.
Nike is no stranger to collaborations with buzzy fashion designers, but that it chose to work with not one, but four of them around the Women's World Cup is a testament to how big of a priority this event was. The brand consistently invests resources in scouting potential collaborators around the world. In this case, it deliberately chose female-led, up-and-coming brands, each of which already incorporated sporty influences into their designs: Ambush's Yoon Ahn, Koché's Christelle Kocher, MadeMe's Erin Magee and Marine Serre got the opportunity to put their unique spin on a national team jersey and a sports bra, with practically all of Nike's innovation and production resources at their disposal.
"We're looking for collaborators that bring something unique and new [to Nike]," Julie Igarashi, VP/Creative Director of NikeWomen, tells me in Paris ahead of final game. (Nike invited a group of media to France for the game and to preview new women's products.) "It's fascinating to see what people do with the Nike platform and we can learn from each other. And, to give young women, emerging talent, the opportunity to partner with a brand like Nike, one of the most powerful institutions of sport in the world, that's a big deal and we take it with a lot of responsibility and respect."
Kocher was amazed at the freedom she was given by the Nike team, and excited by the opportunity to learn. "I work in more traditional ready-to-wear and there it's more technological," she tells me. "It was a great exchange." It was also a major opportunity in terms of exposure. "I think it's a great opportunity when you're an independent brand based in Paris to [partner with] a huge, powerful, inspiring group which is global and has a universal voice," she says.
Ahn agrees, adding that Nike stands to gain something by working with them as well: "I can give [Nike] something they don't know that I'm familiar with — a different type of audience who aren't athletes," she says. "I think it's really give and take and we can support each other in different areas."
In addition to the opportunities to learn, flex new creative muscles, gain exposure and make money (and attend a rather decadent trip to Lyon, France for the final game), Kocher and Ahn were especially motivated by the opportunity to support female athletes.
"I'm really happy that a big brand such as Nike is taking a big move for the woman and participating in a positive way to bring more power to the woman, bring more relevance to the sport and inspiring a young generation," says Kocher.
"They told me Nike, as a company, they're going to be full-on supporting women athletes from now on," adds Ahn. "It takes a push from a big corporation like Nike to really get it going. Being the number one sportswear brand, to really initiate supporting women athletes, I think that's gonna shift everyone's [mindset]."
In many ways, the World Cup was only the beginning of Nike's efforts to both court female customers and to bring more attention to women's sports as a whole — something it's in the unique position to do. Despite recent controversy around the brand's payment of pregnant athletes, Nike has managed to make its support of female athletes feel genuine. And given the social and political significance of this particular tournament, that could prove very effective. "As we speak, we're creating an even deeper emotional connection to consumers through the Woman's World Cup in France," said Nike CEO Mark Parker during an earnings call on June 27.
"I think this is a tipping point for our brand and for women's sports going forward," said John Hoke, Nike's VP, global design, during a presentation of the brand's upcoming women's innovations. "This was another catalyst for more growth for young female athletes across the planet and when that happens I think we'll all be beneficiaries."
Over the next few months and years, Nike will roll out a slew of new, inclusive products for women (most of them embargoed). "How do we expand our aperture and really serve athletes of all sizes and shapes in whatever their endeavor is to health and wellbeing?" said Igarashi of Nike's ongoing approach to its women's designs. In addition to serving a wider range of sizes, cultures, abilities and other needs, Nike seems to be moving towards a more approachable, Outdoor Voices-esque view of athleticism, where one needn't be playing for professional soccer or training for a marathon to use its products. Igarashi brought up yoga and dance as examples of a "more inclusive definition of sport."
Collaborations like those executed for the World Cup also help expose the sports brand's wares, and maybe even the world of women's soccer, to those who don't do or follow sports, and this seems to be a big part of how Nike plans to go after women moving forward. According to Igarashi, the company is also making a push to work with and highlight more female creatives, beyond fashion designers.
"We also made an effort to close the gap in the creative industry with regards to creative directors and photographers and stylists, so we committed across the board to be engaging female talent within the industry," she tells me. "It's just the beginning; we're definitely committed to walking the talk and opening the aperture around what people think sports is and can be and bringing people in from different points of view and different experiences is really critical to that."
Top photo: Toni Heath and Christen Press of the USA celebrate with the FIFA Women's World Cup Trophy following the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match. Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Disclosure: Nike provided my travel and accommodations to attend and cover its events surrounding the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup final in France.