The Turning Point for Women’s Sport
Rosemary St. Clair, VP and GM Nike Women, reflects on 20 years of women in sport and the encouraging, exciting and wide new vision for it.
Sport teaches us how to find the power within us. For example, when I watch tennis, I'm always struck by the ability an athlete has to dig deep and deliver. A missed shot in one moment can shift to a winning return as quickly as 12 seconds later — and with it, disappointment transfers to triumph. That always serves up a feeling in me that I too can go out and conquer.
We all witness that drive in elite athletes. Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Chloe Kim, Ibtihaj Muhammad, to name a few, each have a seemingly superhuman ability to succeed.
In them, I'm reminded of the steely reserve shown by members of the 1999 US National team. Watching the penalty shootout in the final, amid more than 90,000 fans in 100-degree heat, remains one of the most memorable moments of my life. Brandi Chastain's final penalty, the hopes of a nation on her shoulders, is one of the great finales in the drama of sport. It unified and rallied an entire nation.
I was working in marketing figuring out how to get people excited about the tournament. Going into '99, we wanted to ensure that athletes became heroines for young girls. We wanted to create momentum, so we worked hard to encourage parents to take their daughters to games. Honestly, we weren't sure it was going to work.
But, it did. Then-10-year-old Alex Morgan, now leading the US National team into this summer’s tournament, is firm testament.
Our definition of sport is not fixed. In the 1970s, as the contours of gender barriers were shifting, Nike advocated for the implementation of Title IX, which came into being in 1972, just one year after the Nike name was established. Through the 1980s, Nike was there to support women in efforts to gain venues to compete. Twenty years ago, the way we defined sport was still rather narrow. It was traditional — team sports and individual sports such as gymnastics and tennis.
Today, we are at a turning point for women in sport. The definition of sport has broadened overall; we recognize that the same lessons in self-esteem and confidence that come from participation in traditional sports also come from yoga, boutique fitness, functional fitness and so much more. We see superhuman ability not only in elite athletes, but in the efforts of our peers.
This new vision for sport is both encouraging and exciting.
For Nike, it has become a catalyst for a recalibration of our ideas. There are more and more ways for women to participate in sport. When they hit a PR in a race, deadlift their body weight, nail an arm balance or even just cover their first mile — it all creates confidence by allowing them to say, “I did that.” We want everyone to participate in sport — and not just every now and then but regularly — and we know that to support the dream we have to lead a conversation regarding a variety of desires and needs.
In order to encourage everyone to engage with sport, we have opened up new possibilities in product. This includes dedicating resources in our sports science lab (the NSRL) and in design to expand our understanding of women’s needs. The effort has resulted in the first-ever made-for-athletes Pro Hijab and our focus on inclusive sizing for female athletes — for instance, our bra innovation is now crafted to ensure the right fit and function up to 44G.
Most important, we know that behind every Alex, Serena, Simone, Chloe and Ibtihaj is a team of coaches and supporters. Among those supporters are young girls — athletes in their own right — who represent the next generation.
We see the value of consistently supporting sport — by any definition — at a grassroots level. To that end, we are committing to efforts in training new female coaches around the world. We’re also offering services through our NTC App, like yoga and mindfulness instruction, that widen our vision of sport. We recognize that when we celebrate competitive athletes, we must also unapologetically champion everyone who embraces an active lifestyle.
Some of this is already happening. But, despite our strides, we won’t rest until the answer to the question, "is sport for you?" shifts from "No, it's crazy" to become one where all women can say emphatically, “Yes, it's for me.”