Under Armour and Nike respond to NFL controversy

On a polarised political playing field, the American fashion and sportswear industries are finding just how little room there is to manoeuvre. Sports giants Under Armour and Nike have both found themselves facing a communications conundrum this week in the wake of controversial comments regarding NFL protests made by President Donald Trump at a rally on Friday.


Trump criticised NFL players at a rally on Friday for the Alabama Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange - Photo: CNN

The President’s harshly-worded entreaty for the National Football League to fire athletes who take the knee during the national anthem landed the league’s sponsors, whose patronage earned the league $1.25 billion last year according to sponsorship tracker ESP Properties, in a highly undesirable public hotseat.  While most of the retail powerhouses, a group including PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Budweiser, have remained pointedly silent on the matter, Nike and Hyundai have now offered critical responses, joining the NFL in its quick condemnation of the President’s several-minute tirade.

In an explicitly partisan show of support, Nike said via a statement sent to the press on Monday: “Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.” A bold and provocative response from the Oregon-headquartered brand, but a coherent stance for a company that has consistently emphasised brand values of equality, diversity and inclusion. The message still proved divisive on Twitter, however, where some users called for a boycott.

Meanwhile, Under Armour ventured via tweet that it “stands for the flag and by our Athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America.” Presumably aiming for diplomacy to satisfy both sides, the statement seemed to appease neither, and met with vigorous accusations from followers that the brand "stands for nothing."

Unfortunately for Under Armour, its wavering stance on the NFL controversy is only the latest in a line of political mishaps. The brand has found itself under fire several times in recent months as consumers - and even its own major brand ambassadors - have taken to social media to denounce CEO Kevin Plank’s comments in support of the White House. And if its perceived partisanship hasn’t chimed with consumers, neither has its fashion strategy -  a late entry into the fashion sportswear segment failed to redress its missed sales opportunities, and the brand announced a restructuring plan in August after a second consecutive quarterly loss. The brand officially attributed its loss of sales momentum to having dragged its feet on the uptake of the athleisure trend.

While the events from this weekend are unlikely to have a discernible business impact, the brand’s tepid consumer appeal in recent months has nevertheless been compounded by criticism from top athletes, as well as by the lingering notion that the brand has ‘lost its cool’ – underscored yet again by its unwitting embroilment in this week’s politically-ignited furore.

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