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Nike’s big World Cup push is nice in the broad strokes but needs some fine tuning

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Germany v China PR: Group B - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Nike is sponsoring 14 teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. They are, of course a longtime USWNT sponsor, and they’ve got host nation France as well, plus more lowkey tournament favorites like England and Australia (although maybe not anymore after that first round loss to Italy).

In total, athletes wearing the swoosh this year come from: China, Canada, USA, South Africa, Australia, Chile, France, the Netherlands, South Korea, England, Nigeria, Brazil, New Zealand, and Norway.

Fans in the United States haven’t been completely satisfied with their ability to order USWNT jerseys. From delayed jersey shipments, lack of customization options, to no three-star aways for men, it seems like the whole process has made it harder than it needs to be.

It hasn’t endeared Nike to women’s soccer fans in the US, particularly given they’re often an underserved consumer segment that has, until recent years, been little more than an afterthought when it comes to merchandise. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see them devote tons of money to pushing themselves as a leader in women’s sports while at the same time some fans still have to dream of finding merchandise that’s for them.

Nike is, of course, a global company, and designing 28 home and away kits then launching international sales both directly to fans as well as to retailers probably kept plenty of people late at the office. Their news site described the process of bringing players into their labs to scan them and retool the kits to better fit an international soccer player’s body. In a phone interview before the start of the World Cup, Nike VP, GM of Global Categories Amy Montagne, said the whole process, from start to now, took between two and three years. There were the body scans, design processes that incorporated storytelling unique to each nation, manufacture, and of course marketing.

That’s why it was exciting to see Nike’s borderline ridiculous World Cup kit launch in Paris, featuring athletes from each team walking a runway that ended in a large rotating mid-air platform.

Add on to that their massive three-minute Dream Further commercial, which was filmed over two months during this spring and debuted during the men’s Champions League final, and Nike is clearly committed to pumping millions of dollars into positioning themselves as the leading purveyor of fine woso goods. (Treat yo self!)

Montagne was effusive about Nike’s commitment to female athletes. “We’re committed to growing the market in more meaningful ways,” she said of Nike’s investment in female athletes and consumers. “I can say at the highest level, what you’re seeing in our commitment on the [ad] campaigns are one example…we are shifting resources within our company to women. And we’re seeing that it’s working. We’re super energized, excited, and inspired around what we’re seeing. And we’re seeing momentum around the business and really, really excited for the future.”

Part of this is utilizing Nike’s massive global brand influence to shift social attitudes towards women in sports, instead of waiting for attitudes to change, which includes things like the Dream Further commercial, which portrays a world where women’s soccer being widely accepted and massively popular is fait accompli. “I watched that Dream Further spot in the last couple days probably about 10 times,” said Montagne, who attended school at Santa Clara at the same time as Brandi Chastain, although she probably couldn’t have known then that she was walking around the same campus as someone who was destined to become an historical sporting icon.

But what executives like Montagne are hoping for at the highest levels seems to be having problems trickling down into the hands of actual consumers, like those who ordered USWNT World Cup jerseys as soon as they were available, only to receive them after the start of the tournament or to have the order canceled outright. That may be more the fault of middleman retailers, but there’s also the fact it’s pretty hard to get ahold of certain kits, even in a Nike flagship store on the Champs-Élysées. There, the store was missing kits from Canada, South Korea, South Africa, and New Zealand. Some countries they did have, but not both the home and away – China’s grey and orange away has been plentiful in Paris soccer stores, but the red home is nowhere to be found. Customization options on site were also limited; the store was more than happy to print the names of French players, but didn’t have namesets and numbers for any other country’s players, even though those teams’ jerseys were sitting just across the room from the customization station.

“Jersey availability varies by store and by country,” a Nike rep said by email. “The stores/countries buy in the ones they anticipate demand for in their respective markets as they manage their respective inventories and floor space.” Which, to a certain extent, is fair; a store in Paris will make more sales of France and England kits than New Zealand ones, and they certainly shouldn’t dedicate equal floor space to every single country when that would negatively impact sales of other products.

But it was disheartening to see that a flagship store in the capital city of the host country didn’t think it was necessary to have jerseys for every country. And it’s not that you can just go online to get the missing jerseys; for example, once again the China home jersey isn’t even available on Nike’s Chinese website, or is buried so deep in the page as to functionally be unavailable. In Nike’s Canada site, they only have the white Canada away (Canada did switch from Umbro to Nike in December of last year, limiting their prep time relative to other countries).

Montagne didn’t speak directly about these problems in the jersey supply chain when asked, but did say that “more is coming.” She pointed out that Nike will also be watching for World Cup results in order to be responsive to consumer demand should a team or a player make a particular impact. “It’s kind of fun to watch [Nike personnel] have different plans around whatever happens with these teams,” she said. “It’s a balance of the art of it and the science of it and the metrics to understand.” Whichever team wins, you’ll probably have no problems at all getting a hand on their jersey.

Nike has clearly put a lot of time and money on the line; you don’t take two months filming an international commercial and make a men’s CL ad buy if you’re not serious about spending money. But it would be nice to see Nike pay a little more attention to the smaller teams during the World Cup. It would be nice to be able to order any of the jerseys you see the players wearing. It would be nice to be able to easily customize jerseys for every country, or even just the countries that each store is willing to stock. Nike is certainly making a broad push to expand their business towards women, and not just for the World Cup, but perhaps there’s a way to tip the balance of resources a little bit more towards the nuts and bolts of being a women’s soccer fan hungry for merchandise.