Nike parted ways with their most powerful track & field executive last week. The amount of buzz this generated within the sport and lack of notice outside of it is a fitting coda.
John Capriotti has had a career unlike that of any of his peers at Nike. For at least 21 of his 23 years, while other Nike vice presidents and marketing executives-to-be went from one business group and one business function and one continent and one sport to the next, Capriotti held the same post in the same place in the same sport. Capriotti was a NCAA Division I track & field coach before he followed his mentor to Nike where he became the “overlord” of track & field from 1996 to September 2020.
The combination of Bing and LinkedIn public profiles shows just how unusual this is for a vice president of marketing for a sport or category vertical within Nike.
For example, the current head of global marketing for golf, tennis and softball reached that post by way of being a basketball brand manager, Jordan Brand Manager in China, basketball marketing director in North America, sports and energy senior marketing director for emerging markets, and senior marketing director of sportswear for brand management in the Asia Pacific and Latin America regions.
The vice president for sportswear global brand marketing was previously the vice president and chief marketing officer of Converse, the senior marketing director for Nike sportswear in Western Europe, a brand director for running in North America and global marketing manager for Nike Energy.
Similarly, the global VP and general manager for Jordan Brand held Nike posts in North American soccer, global soccer, tennis, the Nike Foundation and e-commerce for the Americas. The current global president and general manager for soccer came by way of being Nike’s VP / GM of the German Alpine Region and the VP of Commerce for Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The only executive we could find with a similarly narrow Nike resume was a sports marketing executive for Jordan Brand. That’s the only job he has held at Nike so far… after 11 years as a vice president and senior VP at Nickelodeon and a few more years at Spike TV.
Capriotti, on the other hand, is leaving Nike from a position he assumed shortly after joining in 1996: global marketing manager for track & field.
No tours of duty outside of Portlandia. No exposure to the business cycles and marketing practices of golf, soccer, basketball, sportswear or tennis. No movement from brand management to marketing to emerging markets and back again.
When people comment that the marketing, sponsorship and event management practices of track & field look much the same today as they did in the mid-1990s (or earlier), show them the resume of the most powerful marketing executive in the sport. It, too, looks much like it did in the mid-1990s.
How can we be surprised that track & field has not evolved as a business or experienced growth like soccer, tennis, basketball or almost any other sport has? Those sports have all grown together because they are all connected via the people who move through them.
Where do track & field people expect new ideas and best practices to come from if they neither go looking for them nor invite them in?
Track & field is a closed shop in Nike’s image
People who work in track & field share Capriotti’s mono-everything approach. They don’t work in the sports industry - they work in track & field.
Designers will move around the shoe companies, media members tend to stay put at one outlet but might move around a small circuit, and there’s often a thin line - or no line - between the marketing reps, agents, club managers and event directors. But whatever the details, they stay inside the walls of track & field / road running.
The revolving door is between adjoining motel rooms.
Even if they are not consciously following the standard Nike has permitted track & field, they are emulating one man who has done one job in one place for over two decades, rather than an industry that has left that man and their sport behind.
Nike’s and Capriotti’s mutual indulgence in no way exonerates the rest of the sport for their lack of professional breadth or intellectual curiosity. I’ve noted for years that I have never once encountered someone else from the track & field world at conferences or even Meetups in sports marketing, sports media, sponsorship, sports tech or anywhere else.
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Most professionals in the sports industry work in just that: the sports industry. Their career takes them from one sport to another, from major to minor back to major leagues, from team to brand to media to startup. When they leave a powerful position, it makes headlines in the sports industry. Capriotti’s departure has gone unremarked upon outside of track & field circles.
What does Nike see when they look at track & field now?
One of the great tests of leadership is how well an organization can function in its leader’s absence. John Capriotti made himself the indispensable man of track & field at Nike, where for over 20 years he showed little interest in or hope of passing that test.
Nike may have permitted track & field its stasis, but that does not mean Nike will spare track & field the consequences of Capriotti’s legacy. Track & field’s decades-long exemption from Nike’s modus operandi leaves it without internal champions or bottom-line arguments. Nike’s new leadership may see track & field for what it has always been: a vertical disconnected from the company’s internal career standards and personnel pipelines; a sport isolated from the rest of the industry; a fiefdom built on market share and control rather than innovation and growth.
John Capriotti - via Nike - may have been essential to sport. We could hardly pass a grimmer judgment on all.