Blogs & Comment

How Nike corrected past mistakes to succeed in action sports

The Swoosh's renewed push into skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing a lesson in how to engage niche audiences.

(Photo: David J. Spurdens/Getty)

Not too long ago, it was unthinkable that we’d see a skateboarding ad during Hockey Night in Canada. But there it was during Game 4. A new global ad campaign by 72andsunny, acquired by Toronto-based MDC in December, shows just how much times have changed, both for sports like skateboarding and their relationship with the Swoosh.

The spot, directed by Lance Acord, features a collection of surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders, BMXers and motocross riders in locations as diverse as Whistler, Bali and New York City.

Back in the 90s, Nike made a big push to get in on the rising popularity of skateboarding, producing a number of commercials that imagined a world where athletes like golfers and runners were treated like skateboarders. While they were brilliant ads, the brand’s attempt to crack into the subculture died because Nike failed to offer any actual support for the sport. Skateboarders rejected Nike’s overtures because the shoe giant made TV ads but didn’t sponsor skateboarders, events or sell its products in skateboard shops.

When Nike tried again a decade later, it made sure not to make the same mistakes. Instead it embedded itself within the culture instead of simply dumping cash on an expensive TV ad. “Now, Nike is a big supporter of the culture, whether media, contests, skater sponsorships, shops whatever,” says Ryan Stutt, publisher of skateboarding and snowboarding magazines KingSh*t and KingSnow (disclosure: I worked with Stutt years ago at SBC Media). “Every mainstream shoe company that’s got into skateboarding since, like Converse and Adidas, has followed their lead to be successful.”

Bernie Baker, a former editor at Surfer Magazine and the contest director for the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing told the New York Times, “They did their homework,” and cited Nike’s “relentless promotion of youth events” as a significant reason for the brand’s success.

Now Nike’s decided it’s time to shine a mainstream spotlight on its action sports athletes. The brand has done TV spots aimed at this crowd recently, but this is the first time it’s giving it the full Just Do It treatment, aiming to make names like Paul Rodriguez (skateboarding), Danny Kass (snowboarding) and Laura Enever (surfing) household names. These sports are a $390 million business for Nike, and the brand is aiming to double that amount over the next five years.

“They’ll probably do it too,” says Stutt. “As long as they keep supporting the core industry and culture they way they have been to maintain a legitimate place in it. Hey, I just put a transsexual skateboarder on the cover of my magazine and Nike helped pay for it, how can I hate on them?”