The Importance of Proving Your Positioning: Nike and the 99ers

I was 12 years old when Nike debuted the If You Let Me Play campaign. The first time I came across the print ad, I was so inspired that I carefully tore it out of the magazine so I could hang it up on my bedroom wall. I was lucky enough to see the commercial once on broadcast television (it being 1995, the internet wasn’t even much of a thing yet, let alone YouTube). But once was enough. I remembered every detail of the spot because the connection was immediate; they understood me and every girl like me. The lone female in the boys’ league. The assertive competitor. The aspiring Olympian. We, an entire untapped market on the cusp of buying power. Nike saw us, and they stepped up and said, “Go play. We’ve got your back.”

If You Let Me Play, 1995

Of course, the structure of the spot was what made it powerful. Young girls speaking directly to camera, providing empirical evidence of the benefits of athletics over the course of a woman’s life. Their voices were calm; their gaze direct. The message was so effective because an emotional issue was being presented in a logical manner. The spot would not have worked if the same idea had been presented as a plea, because no one was technically saying girls couldn’t play (Title IX had been passed 23 years earlier), it’s just that no brand was actually encouraging girls to pursue sport, either. With If You Let Me Play, Nike was essentially saying, “There is only upside when girls participate,” and thus empowered an entire generation of women, myself included, to pursue (and excel) in athletics.

The same year that Nike launched that campaign, the second Women’s World Cup was played in Sweden in front of an average crowd of 4,300 people. One year later, in 1996, Women’s Soccer debuted as an event at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and the US Women won gold. I attended both the semi-final and final matches, which were played in Athens. Sanford Stadium was sold out for each game and the energy and excitement around the team was palpable. Suddenly, not only was one of the world’s biggest brands telling us we could (and should) be athletes, but we had an entire team of kick-ass women role models proving that people wanted to witness female athletes...well, kicking ass.

The importance of the If You Let Me Play messaging coinciding with the rise of the US women’s team cannot be understated. While Nike does have a track record of remarkably prescient marketing, the fact is that the women on the roster of that team (many of whom would come to be known as the “99ers” for their historic World Cup victory three years later)—Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, et. al.—had no business being as good as they were. They grew up with few, if any, female athletic role models. They were professional athletes who were essentially playing for free. They were part of an organization that somehow operated for an entire decade with very little support and funding. In what world is that a recipe for a championship team? Only in the world of women.

In 1995, Nike placed a bet on female athletes. And while their messaging would have been effective even if it had been presented in a vacuum, the women of the US National Team between 1995 and 2000 amplified it, validated it, and made it more powerful.

In three short years, from winning Olympic Gold in 1996 to winning the 1999 World Cup in historic fashion, the team went from near obscurity to a cultural phenomenon. They became titans of sport and inspiration to young athletes—girls and boys—worldwide. Meanwhile, Nike was earning dividends in the form of brand affinity because of one thoughtful positioning decision made years before. And it was all thanks to a group of 20 truly remarkable women.

Last week, the eighth installment of the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off in France. Most of the women currently playing on the US team probably don’t remember If You Let Me Play. In fact, some of them weren’t even born when I tacked the ad up on my bedroom wall. It’s more likely they remember Nike’s 2006 spot Voices, which employed many of the same techniques that made its predecessor compelling. Except Voices was clearly a reflection of the astronomical rise in popularity of women's sports from 1995 to 2006. The tone was more confident, more defiant. The featured athletes no longer needed the statistical proof offered in If You Let Me Play to gain entry to the field and/or court. The proverbial chains had been moved. Girls just wanted to play ball and, by the way, they didn’t need to meet some predetermined criteria of how an athlete looked or acted, thankyouverymuch.

Voices, 2006

The difference is subtle but important. Those who grew up with Voices as aspirational reference had an advanced starting line, a different trajectory than the girls who grew up with If You Let Me Play. Players of the Voices generation who now find themselves on the national team have benefitted their entire lives from the legacy of the 99ers, a fact both they and Nike are keenly aware of. So I was pleased, but not surprised, to see that the entire 90 seconds of Nike’s latest spot Dream With Us was devoted to exploring that very theme. The concept pays homage to the women that effectively laid the foundation upon which the myriad of athletic possibilities for girls today is built: the United States Women’s National Team.

Dream With Us, 2019

When the current team became a target of harsh criticism after their standout opening performance in this year’s tournament, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins dropped the mic on the vitriolic reaction. As I read her piece, I was reminded that as much as Dream With Us serves as a manifesto for all the hard-earned credit that the team both past and present deserves, the fact remains that every player on every roster–from the 99ers on through these 19ers–has been denied what they have earned time and again: fair pay.

As Jenkins points out, the US Soccer Federation is on the hook now more than ever to level the compensation field for our men and women. But I think that it would be a fitting gesture, on this the 20th anniversary of the Team That Changed Everything, for Nike to step up to the National Team and say, “Well played, ladies. We’ve got your back.”