Nike’s swoosh logo is a familiar sight under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the US Open is under way until Sept. 9.
The brand’s partnership with Serena Williams is, by now, the stuff of legend (and a sizable part of Williams’ $25 million annual sponsorship earnings), but the superstar is one of dozens of top players who wear Nike on the court. This week, it’s female partners will be in the spotlight, as the sportswear giant continues its quest to appeal to more women.
While Nike pulls nearly $40 billion in annual revenues, its women’s business only accounts for less than a quarter of total sales — despite the fact that the overall women’s market for shoes and apparel is much larger than the men’s market.
CEO Mark Parker has been vocal about the company’s efforts in this regard, saying on its latest earnings call, “It’s hard to overstate how important this year has been to the evolution of the women’s offense at Nike.” The business grew by double digits in the fiscal year ended May 31, and the firm apparently has no intention of stopping there.
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“There’s incredible momentum for women in sport right now as athletes elite and everyday create a movement of health and wellness while driving a strong appetite for athletic footwear and apparel,” Parker also said in December.
The brand’s renewed focus has been evident in its launch of size-inclusive sports bras and women’s-specific sneakers like the Air Max Dia, as well as collaborations with female designers such as Marine Serre. Its investment in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup also turned the U.S. team’s home jersey into Nike’s best-selling soccer jersey of all time, women’s or men’s.
The US Open, though, is arguably its most important venue of the year in regard to its women’s push, giving the brand the opportunity to align itself with some of the most celebrated female athletes in the world.
“First of all, tennis is far and away the No. 1 leading female sport worldwide, period. Nothing comes close,” said Alastair Garland, VP of Octagon Tennis, the sport’s top talent agency. “So that gives Nike a huge opportunity and a huge platform to elevate the female voice and to tell a story of female empowerment, of success, of achieving goals, of being the best of the best in something.”
Nike sponsors seven of the top 10 women’s players, including No. 1-ranked Naomi Osaka, who last year defeated Serena Williams for the US Open title. At the time, Osaka was under contract with Adidas, but earlier this year, Nike swooped in with a reported $8.5 million offer and beat out the German brand.
Nike also had the ideal designer waiting in the wings to work with Osaka on a custom outfit for this week’s tournament: Sacai’s Chitose Abe — who, like Osaka, is Japanese — has collaborated with the brand on boundary-pushing collections since 2015. On Tuesday, Osaka debuted an exclusive NikeCourt x Sacai look, a zip-up dress with a double-layered skirt, for her winning match against Russia’s Anna Blinkova.
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Naomi Osaka to Wear Exclusive NikeCourt x sacai Apparel in Flushing⠀ ⠀ Japan's world No. 1, Naomi Osaka @naomiosaka takes the court to defend her title in New York wearing NikeCourt x sacai performance apparel exclusively designed for her⠀ ⠀ #NikeCourtxsacai #sacai #sacaiofficial @nike
Another element that’s unique to tennis, said Garland, “is that it’s a head-to-toe sport. So from a branding perspective on the court, you can have a Nike logo on each shoe, each sock, each piece of apparel, on visors, on hats, on your shirt.”
Serena Williams’ on-court Nike outfits consistently generate headlines in the fashion press and national media alike, from the “warrior princess” catsuit she wore to the French Open last year (which was subsequently banned by the French Tennis Federation) to the tutu she worked on with Off-White designer Virgil Abloh for US Open later that summer. This week, she hit the court in a short Nike body suit that sparked plenty of conversation on social media.
Bob Dorfman, creative director at Baker Street Advertising, compared tennis to men’s basketball in this sense: The shoes and jerseys the players wear are essentially the same ones sold in its stores. “That’s why it’s so popular as a marketable commodity for athletes — versus, say, football, where you don’t buy cleats, you don’t buy any of those kind of clothes. So [the US Open] is a great opportunity for companies like Nike to showcase products because you can watch them, you can see them in action. You get close-ups of logos, you get close-ups of shoes. It’s all right there and you can go, ‘Hey, I like that. I’m going to go buy that.'”
Unlike most sports, whose audiences tend to skew male, tennis fans are almost evenly split down gender lines, and last year, Williams’ final against Osaka drew 50% more fans than the men’s final the following day. TV viewership is on the rise overall, with ESPN reporting an opening night rating increase of 43% for this year’s US Open, where Williams faced off against old rival Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer went head-to-head with Sumit Nagal.
Additionally, tennis is a global sport, ranking fourth after soccer, basketball and track and field among worldwide fans, according to a 2018 Nielsen survey. And, of course, Nike is a global brand: North America accounts for about 42% of total brand revenue, with Asia (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) driving the bulk of its growth. It makes sense, then, that Nike’s roster includes not just American champs like Williams, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, but also Osaka, Romanian Wimbledon winner Simona Halep and Ukrainian pro Elina Svitolina.
Dorfman applauded the Swoosh’s efforts to expand its sponsorship roster. “With Serena, even after she’s done playing, she’s going to be a marketable commodity. She’s pretty iconic,” he said. “But you have to keep the pipeline going and making sure that you have the preeminent athletes out there on the court.”
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