Why Nike loves a good controversy – as England shirt sales show

For those like Sharron Davies, it was the final straw from a firm that was already facing a sex-discrimination lawsuit from former staff, slashed the value of its sponsorship deal with Allyson Felix – the most decorated track-and-field athlete in Olympic history – after she became pregnant, and failed to produce an England Women goalkeeper replica kit after Mary Earps’s World Cup heroics.

Davies, the former British swimmer and leading campaigner against trans women competing in female sport, said of the Mulvaney row: “I haven’t bought a piece of Nike equipment since.”

Accusing Nike – which updated its contracts to protect pregnant athletes after the Felix saga and backtracked over the Earps controversy – of a “very misogynistic” history, Davies added: “People just need to vote with their purse. Just don’t buy this stuff. Buy from other companies that don’t do this.”

For Davies, the use of Mulvaney by one of sport’s biggest sponsors compounded a chilling effect on female athletes a BBC survey this week found were too scared to speak out about competing against trans women.

She added: “Young sportswomen, in particular, they only just make enough to be able to pay their way. There are 11,000 men in this country who earn their living from sport. There are 1,000 women. And most of those 1,000 women are living on the breadline.

“So, we have this tiny slice of the cake anyway, and then we’re either supposed to roll over or put up with all of this crap because someone might threaten removing funding, which means removing your ability to pay the mortgage.”

Controversy usually sells for Nike

Calls for a boycott of Nike over the Mulvaney tie-up have had mixed results.

The firm announced in December that its revenues had grown last year but also revealed plans to save $2 billion (£1.6 billion) over the next three years.

That did not prevent it announcing one of its most seismic ever deals last week, that for Germany’s football teams.

Breaking up a 77-year marriage between the national side and Adidas caused as much of a storm within the home of this summer’s European Championship hosts as the England flag row triggered in the UK.

German Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Economic Affairs Robert Habeck said he would have “liked a bit more patriotism”, while health minister Karl Lauterbach said it was “a wrong decision where commerce destroys a tradition and a piece of home”.

For Crow, the Germany move was less about causing a stir and more about parking its tanks on Adidas’s lawn. “Twenty-odd years ago, a very, very senior Nike exec said to me that, having acquired Brazil, a really, really important asset for them next would be Germany, because of the body-blow it would deal to Adidas.”

The arms race between the two sportswear giants has fuelled another of Nike’s controversial moves of recent years, its investment in ‘super-shoe’ technology.

Some have compared the advantages such shoes provide to doping but they invariably fly off the shelves, with those worn by the late Kelvin Kiptum to set the marathon world record selling out within minutes of going on general sale this month.

Nike also made headlines in January when it and Tiger Woods ended their 27-year partnership amid a wider exodus of stars that has included England footballers Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling.

Crow and the former insider both agreed the latter was part of a trend of the firm focusing its athlete endorsement deals on a “handful” of global icons.

“The way to think of it is, ‘Would these guys take a star role in a Nike World Cup campaign?’” Crow said. “Those are the guys they prize. Everybody else…”

Of course, there are negative headlines the firm could have done without since it became the world’s biggest sportswear brand: accusations about sweatshops and child labour; Woods’s admission of infidelity; the Lance Armstrong and Alberto Salazar scandals; the aforementioned Felix furore and sex discrimination lawsuits it is fighting.

But as last week’s England flag saga suggested, when it comes to rows involving Nike, controversy usually sells.

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