A celebrity partner can boost your brand, but flaws in your sponsorship agreement could sour the relationship.
Nike partners with athletes worldwide to help sell its performance apparel and gear. However, every sponsorship agreement contains a performance clause to ensure that Nike doesn’t pay an athlete who has stopped competing and making public appearances. That’s all well and good, says runner Alysia Montaño, until a female athlete is penalized for having a baby.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, published over Mother’s Day weekend, the Olympic runner opined that Nike’s maternity policy for athlete partners leaves much to be desired.
Many athletic apparel companies, including Nike, claim to elevate female athletes. A commercial released in February received widespread acclaim for spotlighting women at all stages of their careers, from childhood to motherhood. On Mother’s Day this year, Nike released a video promoting gender equality.
But that’s just advertising.
…The four Nike executives who negotiate contracts for track and field athletes are all men.
“Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete,” said Phoebe Wright, who was a runner sponsored by Nike from 2010 through 2016. “There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”
More than a dozen track athletes, agents and others familiar with the business describe a multi-billion-dollar industry that praises women for having families in public — but doesn’t guarantee them a salary during pregnancy and early maternity.
For the Olympian Kara Goucher, the most difficult part of motherhood wasn’t resuming training just a week after childbirth in 2010. It wasn’t even when her doctor told her she must choose: run 120 miles each week or breast-feed her son. Her body couldn’t do both.
Nike responded with a concession that some agreements might have failed to differentiate between pregnancy and other performance drop-offs in an athlete’s career, but the company insisted the situation had been handled, implying the issue doesn’t apply in 2019.
In a statement, Nike responded to the athletes’ claims.
“Nike is proud to sponsor thousands of female athletes,” the statement reads. “As is common practice in our industry, our agreements do include performance-based payment reductions. Historically, a few female athletes had performance based reductions applied. We recognized that there was inconsistency in our approach across different sports and in 2018 we standardized our approach across all sports so that no female athlete is penalized financially for pregnancy.”
The New York Times updated its reporting to include the statement, but the writers working on the story weren’t satisfied that the response addressed all their concerns.
Nike acknowledged in a statement that some of its sponsored athletes have had their sponsorship payments reduced because of pregnancies. But the company says it changed its approach in 2018 so that athletes are no longer penalized. Nike declined to say if it wrote those changes into its contracts.
According to a 2019 Nike track and field contract shared with The Times, Nike can still reduce an athlete’s pay “for any reason” if the athlete doesn’t meet a specific performance threshold, for example a top five world ranking. There are no exceptions for childbirth, pregnancy or maternity.
Most people who spoke to The Times requested anonymity because they feared retribution, or had signed nondisclosure agreements, which may help explain why these arrangements have persisted.
The issue shines a spotlight on a dilemma that many women face in the workplace in the U.S., where paid maternity leave isn’t mandatory. Some businesses have taken the lead by offering extended leave to new parents.
ABC News reported:
There are some examples, like Netflix and Facebook, of companies that provide extended paid family leave for new moms, and new dads, but it depends on the employer. Nike expanded its leave policy in 2016, making birth mothers eligible for a minimum of 14 paid weeks of leave and all new parents eligible to receive eight weeks of paid leave.
There are some female athletes who have been able to keep their sponsorship money during and after childbirth. The New York Times cited tennis star Serena Williams as an example.
The story is also a setback for Nike, which has tried to align itself with a pro-women movement in the U.S., including ads featuring Serena Williams.
ABC News continued:
Williams was the voice of a viral ad that ran during this year’s Oscar ceremony. The ad featured famous female athletes and showed examples of the characterizations placed on them like “dramatic,” “nuts,” “delusional,” “unhinged,” “hysterical” and “crazy.”
“So if they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do,” Williams said in the commercial.
On Mother’s Day, Nike tweeted a video that encourages young female athletes to dream big, and to share their dreams. The video has more than 13 million views.
On social media, New York Times reporters poked holes in Nike’s response:
This is the same statement @Nike provided @nytopinion, and we included it in our piece. It overlooks the fact that Nike has refused as recently as this year to include any language on pregnancy in its contracts, which can reduce pay if an athlete doesn't compete for 6 months. https://t.co/sLbjDFiBl0
— Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) May 13, 2019
Others shared quotes from the NYT piece:
“Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete,” said Phoebe Wright, who was a runner sponsored by Nike from 2010 through 2016. “There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”https://t.co/RyZMGnk3EU
— Sarah Couture (@Couture_Therapy) May 13, 2019
Some offered their emotional response:
This protest by @AlysiaMontano against the discrimination she faced as a pregnant athlete brought me to tears for (at least) 3 reasons…
— Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D. (@nataliapetrzela) May 13, 2019
I am just now catching up on this excellent @nytimes piece on @Nike @ASICSamerica & other apparel companies not supporting female track athletes when they get pregnant. Heartbreaking, infuriating and a must read/watch: https://t.co/wSZXGtQNiY
— Lindsay Schnell (@Lindsay_Schnell) May 13, 2019
Still others noted how the story undercut Nike’s marketing messaging for Mother’s Day:
Important reminder that despite the message these are advertisements.
— Steve Magness (@stevemagness) May 12, 2019
What do you think of Nike’s crisis response, Ragan/PR Daily readers?