This Sunday, Spain and England are set to face off in the final of a record-breaking Women’s World Cup. It will also be a high-stakes competition between Adidas and Nike.
The sportswear giants have dominated a tournament that is expected to be one of the most popular and most lucrative women’s sporting competitions ever held. And they have dedicated unprecedented marketing firepower to the event, which has enjoyed record stadium attendance and television viewership. Between them, the two brands have sponsored 23 of the 32 competing teams, including Spain (Adidas) and England (Nike).
Marketing around the tournament has come packaged in an inspirational wrapper of women’s empowerment and equality, championing star female athletes and promoting brands’ support for the women’s game (which has historically received far less attention than the men’s sport).
In a nod to this gap, Adidas’s campaign for the tournament — the company’s biggest ever for a Women’s World Cup — featured the tagline “Play Until They Can’t Look Away” and spotlighted athletes including England’s star striker Alessia Russo and Australia’s Mary Fowler.
Nike for its part ran a tongue-in-cheek ad, featuring a conversation between a daughter and her father after he revives from a coma that has lasted since the Women’s World Cup final in 1999. The daughter updates her dad on the state of the women’s game with a rapid-fire introduction to 11 of its most iconic players. At one point Brandi Chastain, whose penalty kick won the US the 1999 championship, delivers a cake with the message “Congrats on Waking Up,” an ironic nod to the idea many have been asleep on the women’s sport for years.
But even as marketers have praised this year’s Women’s World Cup as a breakthrough for women’s sports, the increased spotlight has also served to highlight persistent inequalities. For example, the tournament’s prize money this year totals $110 million, nearly triple the $30 million on offer at the last Women’s World Cup in 2019, but still a quarter of the $440 million in prize money at the last men’s World Cup.
Sports brands have backed calls for more equal pay and promoted their support of women’s teams, but they’ve also come under fire in the past for discriminating against female employees and athletes. Nike only began designing kits specifically for female footballers for the Women’s World Cup in 2019. It’s taken until this season for moves to introduce dark “period-conscious” shorts for players to take off.
And then there’s the thorny question of who made the jerseys, shorts and sneakers that brands are betting on to help drive growth, and under what conditions?
While brands are championing top female athletes, labour advocates say they are ignoring exploitation of a largely female workforce in their own supply chain.
In late July, nearly 60 labour organisations signed a statement demanding Nike settle disputes over unpaid wages and benefits worth $2.2 million at manufacturers in Cambodia and Thailand. Adidas has faced similar criticism from campaigners for alleged wage theft and union busting in its supply chain.
The incidents underscore the ongoing fight to improve labour rights for millions of garment workers, whose struggle to eke out a living in an industry plagued by poor wages and working conditions has been made more uncertain by the pandemic and rising inflation.
Most large fashion companies don’t own their own factories, instead contracting out their manufacturing to suppliers around the world, often in countries where labour protections are poorly enforced. Over the last three years, labour groups have concerns that incidents of labour abuse are on the rise.
With attention on sporting brands as a result of the Women’s World Cup, labour and human rights groups have been particularly critical of Nike, claiming the company is refusing to help provide workers that were laid off and furloughed during the pandemic with money they are owed.
In addition to the statement published in July, advocacy groups have organised a letter writing campaign to ask US soccer star and Nike brand partner Megan Rapinoe for support. Concerned consumers and activists have peppered the Nike Women Instagram account with comments calling on the brand to pay its workers.
Nike said it is deeply committed to responsible manufacturing. The company denied sourcing from a Cambodian factory that labour groups say still owe workers laid off in 2020 an estimated $1.4 million and said its own investigation into the allegations found no evidence to support the claims. Adidas did not respond to a request for comment. Though both companies publish lists of their suppliers, neither provide information on where their Women’s World Cup kits and merchandise are made.
Ultimately labour groups say individual campaigns are not a solution for systemic problems. Some are pushing for brands to support the establishment of social security funds that would help guarantee severance payments and address wage theft when it occurs, while policymakers in Europe and the US have moved to pass laws that would make businesses more responsible for issues that occur in their supply chains. But advocacy groups say more work is needed to create legally binding frameworks and regulations that hold brands to account.
“We don’t have the regulatory means or measures required to really hold companies accountable globally,” said Aruna Kashyap, associate director for corporate accountability at Human Rights Watch. “Right now, the power is all with the brands. They are the judge and jury of whether they are responsible or not.”