Nike is still finding its footing with its marketing efforts to address its past wrongs with female and pregnant athletes.
Last night, the sportswear giant sent an email to subscribers reading: “Pregnancy is the ultimate marathon. Let’s talk about it.” The email publicizes the last episode of the footwear brand’s “UltraSound” video series promoting Nike’s "(M)" maternity line, timed to the first few days of the Tokyo Olympics, of which Nike is a sponsor.
The five-episode wellness video series hosted by retired Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross delves into the Black maternal experience and features more than 10 athletes who are mothers who come together to discuss topics like community, self-advocacy and mental health. While the message, appearing on YouTube and the Nike app, is being applauded by many, for those who recall Nike’s tumultuous relationship with pregnant athletes and are fans of Olympian Allyson Felix, the timing of the effort comes across as opportunistic.
While video series usually take months to produce and schedule ahead of time, the first episode of the series was posted on YouTube on June 29, a few days after the news broke that Felix, the most decorated Olympic runner in U.S. history, was coming out with her own shoe line in a clear challenge to Nike. For the past month, Felix has been generating headlines for speaking out against Nike, why she started her own shoe brand and her new move to give out $200,000 in grants to professional mom athletes with her new sponsor, Gap’s Athleta, which has also stolen away Simone Biles from Nike in recent months.
Nike did not respond in time for publication.
For viewers of Nike's "UltraSound," the interview series seems to position Nike as a champion of female athletes without any reference to Felix and others' stories being shared in popular media.
“Is this a way for Nike to try and redeem themselves after countless female athletes were dropped from Nike after becoming pregnant? Is it ironic they dropped this after Allyson Felix’s pinned message that she dropped her shoe line?” reads one comment in the Nike app featuring the video. “Seems to come on the tail end of Allyson Felix photoshoot and discussion of being dropped for being pregnant. We have to do better Nike,” reads another.
"Love Sandra and this is such a wonderful idea," says a commentator on YouTube. "But I’d really like a frank statement from Nike that says we blew it with women like A Felix and A Montano. This feels so much less genuine without an apology and acknowledgment that they were wrong."
It was less than two years ago that Nike-sponsored athletes like Felix, World Championship medalist Alysia Montaño and Olympian Kara Goucher spoke to The New York Times about being penalized financially for becoming pregnant. Felix, for instance, said that Nike wanted to pay her 70% of what she was seeing before. Since then, Nike took a series of actions to clear its name, including introducing new pregnancy terms for athletes, developing its (M) maternity line and creating a digital ad from Wieden+Kennedy London highlighting famous sports stars like Serena Williams, Alex Morgan and Perri Edwards that showed women in various stages of their pregnancy journeys.
The ad, which debuted in March, saw similar backlash to the new “UltraSound” video, including from Felix herself. She praised the spot for celebrating mothers but also stressed viewers to “hold Nike accountable for it, while faulting it for not addressing its origin.
“It was hard to watch. My experience, along with many others, forced Nike to support athlete’s maternity, and when I watch this ad, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge that war,” tweeted the Olympian at the time.