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Nike Holds the Mic as Women's Soccer Finds Its Voice
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A Ted Lasso star and a sports journalist showcase athletes without a brand mention in sight
A brand doesn’t need an ad or sponsorship to prove its worth. Sometimes, it just needs a story.
In 2019, Nike and Observatory partnered to ask themselves a question: Why not build an entertainment studio focused on sports and culture? Instead of trying to wedge diverse, relevant stories into 30-second ads selling products, why not make feature films, documentaries, TV series and podcasts devoid of pitches, gear and the Swoosh? Nike’s Waffle Iron Entertainment sprouted from that discussion.
Named for the kitchen gadget that University of Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman used to makes Nike’s first running shoes, Waffle Iron Entertainment sought to tell sports stories through the lens of larger cultural events. One of its earliest efforts, the Crackle series Promiseland, followed Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant as he navigated the National Basketball Association, Covid-19 and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. It next project, HBO’s The Day Sports Stood Still, followed basketball star Chris Paul during the NBA’s reaction to the pandemic and social justice protests in 2020.
In June, Waffle Iron and Observatory teamed with AudioUp Media, Range Media Partners and iHeartMedia to create the documentary podcast Hustle Rule. Based on the book Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer by journalist and award-winning filmmaker Gwendolyn Oxenham, Hustle Rule tells the stories behind professional soccer players’ rise to their sport’s upper echelons.
Hustle Rule trailer
It launched on June 23, the 50th anniversary of the Education Department’s Title IX rule prohibiting schools from discriminating based on sex, and concluded on July 28 just before the Women’s Euro 2022 final.
“There was never a sense that this was an advertisement for Nike or anything like that,” Oxenham said. “What blew my mind was that Waffle Iron, from the beginning, was just interested in telling these stories because they thought they were meaningful.
“These are stories that no one had ever heard of, and that didn’t deter Waffle Iron for a second.”
From professional soccer to hockey, from football to boxing and mixed martial arts, storytelling across multiple mediums is now critical to sports marketing. Fans want to hear their favorite athletes’ stories in the own words on familiar platforms without being asked to buy a product.
To get there, sports brands must be willing to forego sales in the short term to create fans and athletes who’ll come back with more expendable income later.
“You can only say so much in a 30-second commercial or a 60-second commercial, but the true storytelling can come through in a podcast series, in a television series, in a film,” said Brendan Shields-Shimizu, Observatory’s CEO. “If you can get consumers saying, ‘Wow, I want to go watch this content because it’s actually interesting and doesn’t feel like an advertisement, but I’ve learned something from it or I felt happy from it,’ that’s where I think brands are going to be playing in the future.”
Finding a reliable narrator
Waffle Iron, AudioUp, Range Media Partners and Observatory sought a tone that would resonate with fans. They gave the series its own anthem—”Won’t Stop” by producer and songwriter A1 Le Flare—and searched for a voice to connect the stories while contributing a narrative all its own. They landed on Hannah Waddingham, the veteran actor best known to American fans, at least, as AFC Richmond owner Rebecca Welton from the AppleTV+ series Ted Lasso.
Samuel Brennan, Observatory’s brand supervisor, noted that Waddingham’s experience on screen as well as in West End and Broadway productions gave her command of the podcast’s audience. At points throughout the series, she intersperses stories about her stage career, her Ted Lasso-influenced love of soccer (and the Euro 2022 champion English women’s national team) and her daughter’s love of the game.
“All our eyes lit up, and we all jumped when her name came up, said Observatory’s Chief Creative Officer Linda Knight. “That’s when you know you’ve got the right person, when everyone’s like, ‘Yes, she would be perfect for this.’”
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