While the rah-rah format may not appeal to all, it is clear the Nike+ Run Clubs are reaching a group that traditional clubs have not.
“We can’t hold onto people who are at the back half of the pack,” says Richard Lovett, head coach of the Team Red Lizard, a 250-strong running club that has operated in Portland for 19 years. “If [Nike is] giving people who race at 8-minute-plus miles a place to do speed workouts, they are the only game in town,” he says. “They are the only ones to get a critical mass to do that.”
On different nights, the clubs hold “Home Runs” from the Nike stores, some easy recovery runs of 3 to 7 miles, some long runs. They also hold a beginner’s night and a fitness/strength training night.
Bennett and the other coaches also try to connect runners with the sport. Over the past year each location has held special workouts tied to local professional events: Mile time-trials around the Milrose Games in New York; Heartbreak Hill workouts in Boston; a run that ended at the finish line to watch the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles.
Participants also get to meet and interact with Nike’s elite runners like Shalane Flanagan, Dathan Ritzenhein and Shannon Rowbury.
Faced with all of this organization and infrastructure, the obvious question is, “What’s in it for Nike?” You can certainly pick out a few direct connections to the bottom line. For one, the runs provide a chance for people to try Nike’s shoes at each session. And the sign-up process for sessions and the Nike+ app also allow for data gathering and targeted marketing.
Do participants feel exploited? “Not once have I felt that,” says Dan Salzer, a conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy who has been coming to the Portland sessions for two years and keeps three email accounts to manage privacy. “I don’t feel pressure at all, or expectation to wear Nike.” That said, he has switched to Nikes out of gratitude for the program, which has helped him develop as a masters competitor. “I felt that they earned that,” he says.
No matter how cynical you are, it’s easy to believe Bennett is sincere when he says that Nike is doing this simply because it is in the company’s DNA. “That’s how it started, that’s just what we do,” he says.
Yes, Nike can use NRC for marketing and PR, but to Bennett, that’s not the core of what the clubs are about. “The nice thing is that doesn’t affect the way we have to run the session,” he says. “Because at the heart of it, it’s just getting people to fall in love with the sport. You fall in love with running, that’s good for the sport, that’s good for Nike.”