Updated February 26, 2023
First, it was Ronnie Baker and his move to adidas. Then, Elaine Thompson and her move to PUMA. Then, Marcell Jacobs and his move to PUMA, and finally, Fred Kerley and his move to ASICS. I just saw some social media experts doing a podcast on how Nike is falling apart and giving up on track & field. So, in order to keep my blood pressure down and to perform a public service, here are six deep thoughts on Nike and where they are at with global track & field.
1. The day of NIke having everything in track & field is over. For nearly 30 years, one guy sat at the top of the Nike athletics sports marketing food chain, and his name was John Capriotti. A 14:05 guy at 5,000m, a Cal Poly San Luis alum, and former college coach, John Capriotti bled Nike and loved track & field. His era saw many athletes sponsored by Nike and saw many events getting the support that they needed to survive. It also had Nike CEOs who loved running and track & field. John Capriotti has retired and the current CEO is a businessman, not a businessman with a running pedigree.
2. The day of Nike sports marketing director in athletics has autonomy is over. If one reads the job description last summer for the new sports marketing position at Nike, it was obvious that the power and autonomy of the position had drastically changed. The new athletics sports marketing director has a pretty detailed job description, and athlete sponsorship is more about social media and running marketing resonance.
3. Lot fewer athletes will be wearing the Swoosh. The losses of Ronnie Baker, Elaine Thompson, Marcell Jacobs, and Fred Kerley are the tip of the iceberg. There has been a paradigm shift at Nike running. The departures from Bowerman Track Club (another subject), and the changes at the Oregon Track Club signaled by the departure of Mark Rowland to Athletics Canada, are just a few of the changes in the Nike athletics paradigm shift. In this observer’s estimate, the last time changes happened so quickly at Nike T&F was in 1988, post-Seoul.
4. It is all about Nike global marketing: USATF, British Athletics, what other federations do they need? They have many but do they need to be sponsors of World Athletics or the Olympics. ASICS had a ten-year deal with World Athletics. It seems to this observer, that the big properties are key, but if they get too expensive, Nike will go and invent something on their own. Nike is that big, it has the resources to do much on its very lonesome.
5. Nike has re-examined high school track & field and cross country. The 1.6 million boys and girls running, jumping, and throwing (out of 9.6 million high school athletes) are key targets for the Swoosh. Nike and New Balance are at war with competing high school indoor, outdoor, and cross-country championships. This year, they are on the same weekend, and the battle for top athletes is fierce. IMHO, any brand that does not have a presence in high school athletes is committing marketing suicide. A strong example of a good move is the BROOKS PR Invite ( loved the indoor event).
6. Nike will not leave track & field, but it will evolve its approach. Over the last 40 years, Nike has gone in cycles, supporting high school track, or not, having more athletes than any other brand, or not. The sports behemoth learned lessons from observing the late Horst Dassler of adidas, and reinvented sports marketing, chewing it up, and spitting it back out in a fusion of marketing, social media, consumer-loved designs, and consumer-loved brand ambassadors. The other action was the $281 million spent on the new Hayward Field by Phil & Penny Knight. That was not a move by the de Medici to build a mausoleum, it is a legacy for the sport. That is reason enough to know that while Nike may change its approach to athletics, it will not leave the sport.
The Nike lesson-listen to your own culture.
Successful global brands have done this for decades. Brands big and small thrive in NIke’s wake.
When one tries to compete with Nike, one loses. One must listen to its own music. Fight your battles, find your place in the sports marketing world and capitalize on this.
The battles for the feet and bodies of the world’s consumers continue 24/7, 365 days a year.