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Excitement and viewership for women’s sports are on the rise. In the summer of 2023, Forbes reports that billions of people watch the following events: the National Women’s Soccer League in the US, the WNBA, the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the US Open Women’s Tennis Tournament.

Now in addition to the billions that watch content of these sporting events, 100 of millions watched the event or attended live as it was happening.

In my inclusion in the marketing newsletter last year, I even shared about how there’s a bar in Oregon aptly named The Sports Bra, which only plays women’s sports on its screens, and it made $1,000,000 in its 1st year.

People worldwide are finally catching on that women’s sports are competitive, entertaining, played at a high skill level, and worthy of our investment of time and resources.

Some commentary says that a big reason for this rise in interest in women’s sports is that marketing and promotional efforts have been consistent on the whole and are finally making an impact.

Increased access to watch women’s sports online has also fueled a major uptick in viewership as well, And the success and interest in women’s sports continue this year.

The final game for this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament averaged 18,700,000 viewers and peaked at 24,000,000 according to ESPN.

The men’s NCAA tournament final averaged just 15,000,000 views, making this year the first time ever that a women’s NCAA tournament audience has had a larger TV viewing audience than the men’s. Ultimately, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team won the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Caitlin Clark, whose team fell to South Carolina, is the talk of the town in the world of women’s basketball.

Following the women’s NCAA tournament, Clark was the 1st draft pick for the WNBA, and now there are reports that she is signing an 8-year contract with Nike valued at 28,000,000 that also includes a signature shoe.

And it’s this signature shoe for Clark, who is a stellar player with all kinds of records, awards, and accolades that is at the center of controversy for Nike.

We’re gonna get into the details of this controversy and how it’s relevant to your brand after this short break.

Alright. So I came across a post on LinkedIn recently from Anthony Baldini, a sports business analyst and founder of Athlete Strategies and Sports in LA.

As of the time of this recording, his post has more than 6,000 likes, 761 comments, and 672 reposts. I’m gonna link it up in the show notes for you, so you can have a look at it all.

Now I’m gonna read an excerpt from his post because it sets the stage so well for the issue we’re going to discuss today.

He says, Nike is signing Caitlin Clark to an 8 figure deal and giving her a signature shoe, an obvious decision for the apparel behemoth.

However, this means that the only active WNBA players with active signature shoes are Caitlin Clark, Brianna Stewart, Elena de Leon, I hope I’m saying her name correctly, and Sabrina Ionescu

What do they have in common? They’re all white women playing in a dominantly black league. This is a new development. Previously, almost every WNBA player’s signature shoe from 1995 through 2,011 belonged to a black woman.

Cheryl Swoops, Rebecca Lobo, who is Cuban, Lisa Leslie, Don Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Nikki McCray, Shamika Holzkla, Diana Taurasi, who is Argentinian Italian, and Candace Parker.

If I didn’t reference their heritage, that means they are black. Back to the post. Credit to shoe brands for their aforementioned work from 1995 to 2,011.

But how in the 12-plus years since have we not had a black woman in the WNBA with an active signature shoe line? It’s not enough for a player to just have a colorway.

The signature shoe and the marketing push behind it come with social implications. I’m asking those with power to create change to value black women. Woo hoo.

Anthony said a lot, and I applaud this post. Oh, and the image attached to this post is an image of the 3 active players with signature shoe deals. All white, and a picture really does say a ton. I have thoughts. I always seem to, so let’s get into them.

First off, representation matters. Obviously, it does. But with the league where 64% of players are black, not having a single black player with a signature shoe deal is not at all representative.

These representation issues aren’t just in regards to the shoe. It has happened in media related to the WNBA as well. One study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst analyzed media coverage for the 2020 WNBA season.

The researchers reviewed more than 550 articles about the WNBA posted on websites for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports and found that white athletes on average received 117.56 mentions compared to black athletes who averaged 51.87 mentions.

To add some context to these numbers, the WA in the 2020 season also had a majority of black players. In terms of performance, black players in the 2020 season won 80% of the postseason awards such as Most Valuable Player, rookie of the year, and defensive player of the year.

One report showed that these media mentions matter and that they, quote, set in motion a cycle of financial benefits, end quote. Significant and consistent media coverage leads to sponsorship opportunities.

So when that study on WNBA media mentions, Brianna Stewart, who is white, was the 2nd most mentioned player. She is also one of the few players who has her own signature shoe. Her deal is with Puma.

A lot of the objections surrounding Asia Clark, who was black, who some argue is the best player in the WNBA and doesn’t have a signature shoe is because she isn’t as quote-unquote marketable as Caitlin Clark or Brianna Stewart.

Is it because of the media mentions? If so, what should be the source of any media mention? Would it be performance, or are there other factors at play? Representation matters. We know this.

Not only in how it impacts how others see themselves and what they feel is possible for people like them. It also impacts how others view people from communities that are different from their own, especially if they don’t have significant contact with that community.

And it also has an impact on finances and opportunities for shoe and sponsorship deals. Representation matters, and insufficient representation causes a ripple effect of harm.

Okay. Representation is point 1 in terms of my perspective. That’s an obvious one.

My second point is about the optics of this at Nike. They aren’t good. It doesn’t matter the intentions of Nike as they’ve doled out these signature shoe deals.

What matters is the end result and how this makes people, and in this case, a lot of black women, and girls feel when it appears that yet again they aren’t getting the recognition, support, and promotion they deserve.

So some of you might be saying, well, Sonia, why do we need to make this about race? And my response is because the numbers show this is about race.

Consciously or subconsciously, no matter the intent, the message that is being sent is we value these white players more. It’s existing systems at play that are working to uphold barriers that make it harder for people from underrepresented and underserved communities to succeed.

And in this case, that community is black women. This is a Nike problem, and it’s a problem for other shoe companies. This is a journalist problem who’s writing all those articles where there’s a disproportionate representation of white women in the media for WNBA. This is a broadcasting company problem.

When it comes to dismantling systemic barriers, this is a problem that a lot of different players, pun intended, have a role in improving the situation. You’ve heard me say this before. Many systemic factors are at play that ultimately too often hurt the success of people from marginalized, vulnerable, underrepresented, and underserved communities.

I did a whole episode on this topic, specifically. It’s episode number 45, factors that influence your customer success that you need to be aware of. I will drop a link to it in the show notes in case you haven’t had a listen. Definitely do, because it’s super, super, super relevant. Okay.

After this short break, I’m going to talk about what all this means for you as a marketer and with your brand.

Alright. So what does all this mean for your brand, really? I wanna talk to you about some considerations that all of this brings to light, and that could spark some change within your organization to help prevent something like this from happening on your watch.

Okay. The first thing is whose job is it to make sure that we don’t have an image posted up that showcases that the only 3 women in the WNBA who have a signature shoe are white in a league that is more than 60% black.

Whose job is it to be aware of the optics and to say something? Whose job is it to look at the market and the league as a whole and say something about the landscape in a way that ensures a brand isn’t making decisions in a vacuum?

I imagine what was happening at Nike and likely all the shoe companies that were trying to sign Caitlin Clark is that they were focused on just that, signing Caitlin Clark.

What I’m calling into question here is that whose job is it to objectively evaluate the situation from a macro level and say, you know what? This isn’t a good look.

My point of view is that this is everyone’s job. Inclusive marketing is everyone’s job. Dismantling systems of oppression is everyone’s job, and identifying situations that are anything but a good look is everyone’s job.

Recognizing and calling attention to situations, decisions, and systems that continue to uphold systems of oppression and cause harm to specific groups of people, in particular, those who are already from underrepresented and underserved, marginalized, and vulnerable communities, that’s everyone’s job.

But for everyone to be on guard to do this job effectively, that means an inclusive mindset is needed. To be clear, I’m not at all saying that Caitlin Clark or any of the other players who already have a signature shoe don’t deserve it. I also want to be very clear about the fact that Nike can do whatever the heck they want. It is their prerogative.

They don’t have to care one way or another about representation or about the optics of this or anything.

However, they also have to accept, that while they can do whatever we want, we as consumers can do whatever we want as well. And part of what we’re doing is holding brands accountable. As consumers increasingly, when we see something that doesn’t look or feel right, we respond with our credit card activism.

We’re also responding to conversations that we’re having on social media and with others. That’s completely how I found out about this situation because of the conversations that people are having, they’re letting their voices be heard, and they’re speaking out and letting brands know when something that they’re doing isn’t right.

So my challenge to you is how can we create an inclusive mindset within your brand, within your marketing team, everyone on your team so that they can recognize these types of things when they’re happening and not be afraid to speak up so that we can not just be looking at campaigns, we can not just be looking at influencers, we can not just be looking at opportunities in a vacuum.

We’re able to zoom out and zoom in at the same time and have a broader look and understand the optics of how things look overall so that that we can put the right mechanisms in place to ensure that we are doing what needs to be done right for the brand while at the same time doing what needs to be done to do right by the communities in which we’re serving.

A second thing that I want you to consider is what are the rules associated in this example specifically about getting a signature shoe, but also what are the rules associated with the people who you’re working with and partnering with and collaborating with for your brand?

So that’s influencers, podcast guests, conference speakers, guest experts, or whatever capacity you might be working with people who are employees of your company.

Now I wanna talk about this, like, in terms of what are the rules because as we’re looking at things holistically, we’re taking this macro view of what’s going on.

At the same time when we’re looking and taking these micro-decisions, we need to understand and have some sort of criteria that helps us understand how we’re picking and choosing the people that we want to collaborate with and work with, that we want to represent our brand.

So for instance, Nike, perhaps, has some type of threshold hold in place of we need to see this many media mentions, this person needs to be marketable in these sort of categories, x, y, and z, before we say, you know what?

We’re gonna say thresholds are good, but at the same time as you’re looking at those and implementing those, you also have to ask yourself, are those rules and criteria equitable? Whose job is it to influence and change what is happening naturally at a societal level?

Because, yeah, we can have those rules and standards in place, and I’m not saying that we should just break all standards and break all these rules just for the sake of making sure that we have representation. I want you to look at this at a deeper level and make sure that we’re thinking about equity whenever we’re putting these types of rules and standards in place that help us to get to a certain position.

So if we think about this Nike example signature shoe thing, if they said that it was based upon media mentions, but as we’re seeing, media mentions already aren’t equitable, Is that the right standard?

Will it help us get to a place where we really need to get it?

Or do we need to be thinking about other ways, more equitable ways to evaluate how we’re making decisions so that we can get to a result that works for everybody, that is equitable for all people, that gives everyone that we’re working with, all the communities that we’re trying to reach gives them the same opportunities to succeed and achieve success.

So that means, as a team, we need to understand equity and think about it and have an understanding of how that applies to the work we’re doing and to the measures and the standards and the qualifications that we’re putting in place to make sure that we’re not upholding systems and perpetuating things that are causing harm to other people.

Another important question for you is, as brands and marketers, are we supposed to go with the flow of what is happening in society, or are we supposed to be working to change it? So if society is all on the Caitlin Clark bandwagon, and I wanna reiterate, Caitlin Clark is a fantastic player.

If everybody is on the Caitlin Clark bandwagon and on the bandwagon of talking about these players, particularly these 3 white women players who have the signature shoes.

If society as a whole is talking about them, we can recognize that other factors at play are preventing society from talking about other players who have earned the right, have earned the recognition, and have performed at such a high level if society isn’t talking about them in the way that they should be talked about.

If they’re not giving them the recognition support and focus that they need to be doing, is it our job to lead society? Is it our job as marketers to shape society? Is it our job as marketers to lead the way, or are we followers?

Are we followers of what’s happening in society and do we let society shape us?

My position is that as marketers, and business leaders, we have a responsibility to shape what’s going on. We have a responsibility to be the change that we want to see.

So if society doesn’t think that women’s sports are sufficiently worth all the money and publicity, do brands just go with that until society gets its act together and brands follow suit?

So remember that example that I mentioned earlier about that sports bar out in Oregon where society says that, hey, women’s sports aren’t The woman who opened the sports bar led the way and decided that she was going to shape society.

And what happened? The results were amazing, as I mentioned. She’d had a $1,000,000. She made $1,000,000 in her 1st year of business.

She decided that the way society was doing things wasn’t right. It wasn’t just, and it needed to change. So she took it upon herself as a business owner and leader to change it.

As a marketer, I want to challenge you to make sure that you just don’t accept what society is saying. I mean, how long will things be unjust and unfair and not right before society kind of gets its act together?

As a brand, as a marketer, you have power. Use your power for good, and don’t wait to be influenced by society. Make the change that you see that needs to be changed now. Here’s an example of a brand that decided that they weren’t going to wait for society to get on board before they acted on what they felt was right.

They decided to be a trailblazer and lead the way. So this brand that I wanna use as an example is Sports Illustrated. In 2018, Sports Illustrated swimsuit editor, MJ Day, who is still in her post today, wrote about how the brand was advancing an idea of inclusion even if the world wasn’t on board with it yet.

She said, in recent years, we’ve worked hard to make the swimsuit issue a celebration of another idea long obvious to those of us in the real world even if Hollywood, the fashion industry, and mainstream social media are sometimes slow to embrace it.

The inarguable truth is that beauty comes in all forms, dark, light, curvy, slim, tall, and short, all types of beauty are worth celebrating.

So Sports Illustrated, one of how they’ve lived this value in this point of view that they’ve had is they’ve had transgender models. They’ve had models of different body sizes and types.

Last year, they put 81-year-old Martha Stewart on the cover of their swimsuit issue just to showcase that beauty comes in all shapes sizes, and ages.

They’re doing this and leading the way without waiting for society and the powers that be in Hollywood and mainstream media to get on board with it. Here’s what it comes down to.

Building an inclusive brand doesn’t mean you wait until everyone is on board with inclusion. It’s about having a vision and values that align with inclusion and moving forward with it even if it means blazing a trail when others are slow to embrace your vision.

Alright. That’s it for today’s episode, and we covered a whole lot. And this episode is quite different from what you normally get on the inclusion and marketing podcast, but I really thought it was important to walk through this example that is in the news now.

We’ve got a number of people talking about it from several different angles, but, honestly, there are bigger implications that are important for you to consider because these types of things are gonna come up as you’re working to build an inclusive brand, and it’s better to be aware of them, to see them playing out in the wild right now so that you can be equipped and prepared should they happen or should you encounter something as you’re working within your own brand, working hard to attract and retain a bigger, more diverse, and fiercely loyal customer base.

If you like the show or found it interesting, I would so appreciate it if you would share it with a friend, colleague, and your network. Let’s continue the dialogue. Let’s continue the conversation.

The more we talk about stuff like this, the more we engage each other, the easier it becomes for us to build an inclusive mindset and enable us to see these types of things as they’re going on and take an objective look at it. I’d love to continue the conversation with you as well.

So if you are talking about this on social, please tag me. Or if you wanna even have a private conversation with me about this, send me an email, or shoot me a DM. Let’s continue the dialogue.

Also, if you’re enjoying the inclusion of marketing podcast, please do leave a rating and review for it in your podcast player of choice. It really does go a long way towards helping more people discover the show, which I like to think means that more people are practicing inclusion in their marketing.

One other question for you. Are you getting the inclusion in marketing newsletter? Each week, I bring you stories, news, tips, insights, and other good stuff for you to help you build an inclusive brand that attracts and retains a diverse customer base. Go to inclusion in newsletter to get signed up. I’ll also drop a link to it in the show notes for you as well.

Until next time, remember, everyone deserves to have a place where they belong.

Let’s use our individual and collective power to ensure more people feel like they do.

Thanks so much for listening.

Talk to you soon.