An inside look at Nike's Women's World Cup takeover leading up to the final in Lyon
Nike has invested in the women's game and it is starting to show with as the popularity continues to grow
PARIS -- For a full month, the best soccer players on the planet gathered in France for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. The talent was on full display as fans from all over the globe were treated to fancy footwork, jaw-dropping goals and exhilarating drama.
You can make a strong argument based on television ratings and merchandise sales that this has been the most popular installment of the Women's World Cup yet -- and it will all come to a close on Sunday when the United States women's national team squares off against the Netherlands in the final in Stade de Lyon. It's a battle between the reigning World Cup champs and the reigning Euro champs for women's soccer supremacy.
Just a day before the championship match, Nike unveiled its new Mercurial soccer cleats, the 2019 Mercurial 360, which will likely be worn exclusively by its sponsored athletes such as Megan Rapinoe (if healthy), Tobin Heath and Lieke Martens in the final.
These two teams might have contrasting styles of play as they prepare for battle, but one major common ground is the presence of Nike -- kit supplier for both federations and sponsor for many players on both sides. There's not another sporting manufacturing giant on the market that has built a foundation and dipped into its big pocketbooks for a takeover of women's professional sports quite like Nike -- and that's been the case long before the road to the final in Lyon on Sunday. And that's when you factor in the fact that tournament is backed by adidas.
Over the span of a few days, guests were given the opportunity to meet with a few of the designers, executives and athletes to give a peel behind the curtains to highlight the push for female empowerment. Here are a few takeaways:
The new Mercurial cleats will debut in the final
The new Mercurial 360 was designed in Italy. The designers shared that it took two-and-a-half years and more than 100 prototypes to find a perfect match.
Six product designers were involved in creating the shape of the shoe and more weight was taken off the bottom plate to give players a lighter and glove-like fit. It's now 200 grams lighter than the previous Mercurial. The insole provides a more consistent lock down so there is no movement when your foot is inside -- which is how a player transfers their power from the cleat and onto the field in order to build speed. Thanks to its soft flyknit finish and its shiny plate underneath, the shoe practically reminds you of a mermaid, especially in the Blue Fury colorway.
The common saying is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but when you apply that to designing a new shoe every year, that can seem like a bit of a challenge. Max Blau, the VP of Nike Football wear, explained some of the hurdles he faced in this year's design.
"Every new creation brings on new challenges, and in this case there wasn't one when we started this conversation with our players. Everyone was consistently saying, 'Please do not mess with the current [Mercurial],' which I think pretty much everyone agreed that it was a 10 out of 10. So we had less to work with," Blau said, who admitted he was happy to prove the players wrong with his latest project.
Blau also gave us an insight on the player feedback when it comes to designing cleats. He pointed out that the first thing players do when they see a prototype model out of a briefcase is squeeze the front part of the shoe near the front toe, which is known as the upper, to see how soft the flywire material is. He shared what it was like to hear back from players of both genders, including Cristiano Ronaldo and a few others that will be on display on Sunday for the final.
"Cristiano was very vocal from the 2018 Mercurial. Right away he thought that was the best Merc and he played with it all the time. Quite a few of them [loved it] -- from the likes of Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoes of the world, Lieke Martens. Both sides of the spectrum. For me, the most noticeable thing was the consistency because that's not always the case. Sometimes people have different opinions, but in this case the message was ,'Somehow you made it softer, somehow it's a bit lighter and it's really, really cool.'"
More than 60 percent of the goals scored this World Cup came from a player wearing the 2018 Mercurial 360 soccer cleat. The 2019 edition will hit the market the day of the championship match. Expect new colorways via player editions and custom features down the road.
"We're not shy when it comes to color and Merc," Blau said.
World Cup fever has led to a rise in USA jersey sales
Nike is currently the kit manufacturer of 14 of the 24 participating nations, two-thirds of the field, including three of the four semifinalists for this Women's World Cup. While Morgan and Rapinoe were soaring through the Golden Boot leaderboard on the field, so too was Nike behind the scenes in jersey sales. The home USWNT jersey (pictured below) shattered sales records and recently became the top-selling soccer jersey -- men or women -- ever on Nike's website.
"The inspiration both in France and around the world doesn't just fuel momentum for women's sport today -- it catalyzes the entire next generation of female athletes. Nike is proud to serve these athletes in new and exciting ways as the landscape of sport continues to evolve," Amy Montagne, Nike's VP and GM of Global Categories, said.
The impact and popularity of the women's game hasn't just been felt in the American marketplace. In fact, countries like France, England, Nigeria, and Brazil also strongly contributed to jersey sales being up 200 percent over the last tournament four years ago.
"We can feel the World Cup's energy and impact throughout our growing Women's business. Female athletes worldwide are engaging with sport like never before; whether it's unprecedented sell-through on national team kits, popularity for high-performance bras, or global impressions of our campaign, we're ecstatic about how this summer has contributed to the acceleration of our Women's offense at Nike. As we continue to deliver the right product and experiences to our athletes, we are committed to fuel the broader movement of health and wellness around the world," Rosemary St. Clair, VP and GM of Nike Women, said.
The seeds are being planted for the future of women's sports
Saturday's event was the culmination of Nike's recent initiative that has seen the brand highlight women's sports and empowerment. Just back in March the apparel company gathered some of the top female athletes around the world for a star-studded kit launch for all its World Cup participants at the historic Palais Brongniart in downtown Paris as part of the Women's Experience 2019. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, former USWNT star Brandi Chastain and WNBA star Sue Bird, who is dating Megan Rapinoe and recently penned a piece about her the day of the semifinal, took center stage along with 28 of the best soccer players to walk the runway and showcase the new kits.
This time around, Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, Italy's Barbara Bonansea, Brazil's Andressa Alves and Norway's Caroline Hansen gathered at the Pablo Picasso district of Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, for a street soccer tournament featuring young girls to showcase the new boots.
In May, the company paid tribute not only to the defending World Cup champion, the U.S. women, but to girls of all ages in different places competing in sports with its "Dream With Us" spot, starring 10-year-old California soccer prodigy Makena Cooke along with various Women's World Cup stars. That spot dethroned some of the most iconic soccer ads -- "The Last Game," "Winner Stays," and "Write the Future" to name a few -- en route to becoming the most-viewed soccer commercial ever, racking up close to half a billion views across all digital and broadcast platforms, with digital garnering significantly more views than broadcast.
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