Nike, Women’s Football Needs More Than an Aspirational World Cup Ad
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is beginning on June 8, and like clockwork, football fans are emerging out of the woodwork to participate in the conversation — one that is currently facilitated by a much-lauded Nike ad campaign. It shows 10-year-old aspiring footballer, Makena Cook, running alongside and hand-in-hand with football legends — Australia’s Sam Kerr, Brazil’s Andressa Alves and the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens. All the while, the women are being clicked by frantic photographers; former England national Alex Scott is somehow managing Barcelona FC; and Neymar is playing a FIFA game with women footballers, while a news clip sounds off in the background, “Women’s football game hits new sales record.”
In what bizarre world, Nike? This is definitely far from the reality on the ground. And while there may be some value in portraying a normal, no-big-deal world where Alex Scott can tell Gerard Pique to go “round the back,” it’s rich coming from a brand that is still not doing nearly enough to help achieve the Utopian world it is being celebrated for depicting.
“Dream Further,” the ad’s title, makes it seem like the problem with women’s stagnant or nonexistent footballing careers is that they just don’t dream far enough. Hint: it’s really, really not. The problem is the societal perceptions of female athletes not being good enough that have influenced revered sporting institutions’ decisions to stay away from building women’s sports into brands on par with men’s. This has culminated in a systemic financial shunning of female athletes, translating to low pay, low visibility, few fans and few sponsorship deals.
One major ideological flaw with the video is also its most hard-hitting aspect — the scenes with Cook running hand in hand with female football players, as they literally pull her with them through a game. Metaphorically, the scenes are supposed to glorify how the players serve as role models for someone like Cook, but set against the larger tone of the ad, it reinforces the toxic idea that it solely falls on women to bring up other women — a task assigned to us in all aspects of life — because clearly, nobody else gives a shit. The video ends with a seemingly inspiring slogan: “Don’t change your dream. Change the world.” So, let’s get this straight: women will train and become excellent footballers, they will fight to get equal pay, they will constantly speak out against sexual harassment, they will persevere in their athletic career despite insurmountable obstacles, they will be trailblazers for younger girls (and literally pick them up as seen in the ad), and in doing so, they will also change the world.
While the rest of the world, what — naps?
It’s for these very reasons that one of football’s biggest stars, Ada Hegerberg — who won the first-ever Ballon d’or Feminin and was asked to twerk on stage — has been boycotting her national team, Norway. She has spoken out against the Northern Football Federation for how abysmally it treats the women’s league, and is sitting out the 2019 World Cup in protest. In another part of the world, all 28 members of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging “institutionalized gender discrimination” in March, and have been struggling to get equal pay as the men’s national team — even though the U.S. women have won the World Cup three times, and the men have done so never. It’s apparent in this year’s World Cup prize — FIFA increased the award money for the women’s Cup from $15 million to $30 million. Last year, the prize for the men’s World Cup was almost 13 times more — $400 million.
Nike’s investment into the Women’s World Cup, and its aggressive, albeit misguided, marketing campaign, may very well bring fans’ and businesses’ attention to the event. So might BBC’s ‘Change The Game’ campaign, the trailer for which portrays the perseverance and grit it takes to be a female football player, set to London rapper Ms. Banks delivering Fort Minor’s 90s track ‘Remember The Name’ with quite a bit of style. BBC also bought the rights to all of the Women’s World Cup games this summer. The question is — what happens when the once-in-four-years event is over? What do the female footballers go back to?
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In an ideal world, the World Cup would serve as a hotbed for identifying unknown talent, scoring brand deals and team investment, and uplifting the careers of the women involved. That’s how it works in the men’s world anyway. The aftermath of past Women’s World Cups, however, looks very different. The dearth of big brands willing to pour money and go all-in to women’s football leads to the women going back to severely underfunded — or even nonexistent — domestic leagues, and supplementing their football careers with jobs that could actually sustain a human life (which also take away from training time). Turns out those who are quick to judge women on their athletic abilities are also the ones building an environment that makes it impossible for women to get better, and survive, at the same time.
This year, you will see brands like Puma, Nike, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Qatar Airways and Visa sponsoring and backing teams in the World Cup. Some big brands have even offered to back domestic leagues — Barclays just pledged to pour more than 10 million pounds into the newly established Women’s Super League in the U.K. over the course of three seasons. (10 million pounds is chump change in the world of men’s football, just saying). Nike sponsors all nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League in the U.S. — but this contract came about only in 2015, after the U.S. Women’s National Team had won three World Cups, and three attempts at starting a domestic league had failed due to a lack of fans, sponsorship and investment.
Nike has done more than any other brand for women’s football; for this very reason, it’s hard to determine how much of it is actual support, and how much is performative tokenism. In a recent New York Times piece, for example, United States national track champion Alysia Montaño said when she told Nike she was pregnant, executives told her they would pause her contract and stop sponsoring her. Following the outcry Montaño’s, and other female athletes’, complaints against the brand incited, Nike said it would stop penalizing pregnant athletes. Let’s not laud these brands for doing the bare minimum for women’s football just because we’re not used to any institutional interest in women’s sports. It’s definitely a step up — but also all the more reason to ask them to do more.
These investments into women’s sports seek only to serve superficial needs — basic exposure and just barely enough money that the leagues don’t fold. There is hardly any investment by big brands into the lower echelons of women’s footballing world — investment into college football and league team academies, facilitating draft picks into women’s football teams, championing individual players, etc. Football players receive as much recognition and wealth from brand partnerships as they do from their actual job — and we’re very far away from a time when women football players will be household names, fought over by brands to market products.
Strides, however minuscule, are being made. Most recently, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) launched a #TimeForAction campaign this year, which seeks to double the number of female football players, improve their working conditions, and increase the sport’s reach, by 2024. In order for this reality to be achieved, though, brands have to show up — not just to a splashy international World Cup in Paris, but also to the high school and college football pitches, where domestic teams usually practice and play tournaments.
With corporations facilitating exposure, fans will come. A game between the women’s teams of Barcelona FC and Atletico Madrid was watched by 60,739 fans, a historic high in women’s club football (although the tickets were 5 pounds — or free). In the last World Cup, broadcaster Fox reported a record 8.4 million strong viewership for the semi-final between Germany and United States. The fandom is there, it just needs to be fostered. (After all, women play better football — devoid of writhing around screaming for attention from the referee.)
It’s not up to the female soccer players of today to change the world. They are doing their job excellently. It’s up to the world to change the world, hopefully into one where 10-year-old Makena Cook never feels the need to lift up someone like her. Dream further, football.