Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman On Nike Ending The Embattled Foundation’s Apparel Line

The cancer charity struggled through Lance Armstrong's doping scandal, but can it survive without Nike?

For Livestrong, the other swoosh just dropped.

Last October, Nike severed ties with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong amid a barrage of charges by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (months before he broke his silence and finally admitting doping to Oprah). But the company had a separate contract with Armstrong’s cancer foundation. The apparel giant stood by the outfit that it had helped transform through sleek marketing and merchandise (and sales proceeds) into a widely recognized brand. Yesterday, in what amounts to the first stage of a breakup, Nike announced it would end production of the Livestrong apparel line.

Nike will fund the organization for the remainder of the contract, which ends next year. Beyond that? “We don’t have details to share on our future plans with Livestrong,” Nike spokesman KeJuan Wilkins replied.

Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman tells Fast Company he isn’t exactly shocked given how tumultuous the previous eight months have been. “Nike made a business decision,” he says. “Right now we’re hoping for the best and expecting the worst. That’s just the reality of the situation we’re in.”

For more than a decade, the foundation had benefited from its close association with the former cyclist. When he returned from cancer and won the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times, sponsors flocked to the inspirational Armstrong--and to his foundation. As John Seffrin, the CEO of the American Cancer Society, once told me, “He’s the most famous cancer survivor in the world.”

But in recent years, allegations of doping and a cover-up intensified, spurring ongoing investigations. As I reported at length during his last Tour de France, Armstrong’s association with the nonprofit became increasingly problematic when the feds took up the case. The founder’s dubiousness threatened to undermine an organization that has helped transform cancer care by focusing on the growing population of survivors, a pivot from conventional R&D. The question in our original headline still lingers: “Can Livestrong Survive Lance?”

Last fall, what remained of the Armstrong mythology officially unraveled. He was stripped of his Tour titles and banned from future competition. Sponsors fled. Those with ties to his foundation quietly began following suit. Kansas City’s Livestrong Sporting Park, the first stadium to grant naming rights to a nonprofit, changed its name. American Century Investments, which had sold Livestrong-branded mutual funds, ended seven years of funding.

Nike’s withdrawl is by far the biggest blow. After all, it was Nike’s idea to take the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s name for a new site and emblazon it on a nifty test product, rubber wristbands. They were the first thing the foundation had ever sold. Those 87 million or so bright yellow $1 wristbands raised the nonprofit’s finances and profile to new heights, breaking the mold for a foundation started by an athlete. Nike helped Livestrong raise more than $100 million.

Now Livestrong is not only struggling to disentangle itself from its tarnished founder and best-known face (Armstrong resigned as chairman and left the board last year). It’s also trying to establish an identity without Nike. “There are still people who believe Nike owns and created the brand,” says Ulman. “That’s a big problem. The brand outgrew the foundation message.”

Doug Ulman

What gets lost is what Livestrong’s 100-person staff actually does. Operating a helpline and walk-in clinic for patients, survivors, and family members. Counseling them on fertility, finances, health insurance. Working with top cancer centers on survivor services. Lobbying governments here and abroad to increase cancer funding.

Funding all that without Nike and other recently departed sponsors is the challenge, although the 15-year-old foundation’s financial reserves provide a cushion for now. Ulman, himself a cancer survivor, remains optimistic. “We’re grateful for Nike--cause-marketing partnerships don’t usually last nine years,” he says. “And we’re eager for new partners.”

Ulman may be determined to get back to what matters most, helping people with cancer. But now more than ever, cycling is relevant, with an apt metaphor to characterize the foundation's future: an uphill climb.

[Yellow Ribbon Cut: Tatiana Kopysova via Shutterstock | Doug Ulman courtesy of LiveStrong.org]

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10 Comments

  • Reidtaj1

    I understand the embarrassment caused by Lance Armstrong, however as a cancer survivor I would expect greater from big business (Nike and etc....).  The big picture involves the lives of millions of cancer patients and survivors that need and sincerely appreciate the funding generated in support of all aspects of cancer education, research, and patient assistance (Which encompasses hospital visits and the critical financial burdens that families face. I believe that companies such as Nike should stand up and lead by example in being the "Bigger Man" in this case, not looking at the ignorance in the shortcoming of one and believe in nurturing the lives of those of us that appreciate and support not only Nike as a bran, but Livestrong as a company who as a company has devoted it's efforts in education, prevention, and survival. 

    God bless Livestrong and Nike in finding a resolve for the betterment of survival of life versus that of a brand name.  Nike has and always will survive as it has not been perfect in it's life span in dealing with athletes i.e. Michael, Charles, Kobe, Tiger, and etc....who is turn morally surpassed the behavior of Lance Armstrong in adulterous sex scandals, gambling, and violence of the court.  Nike has still survived and lead in all sporting goods sales in the manufacturing.     

  • Mark

    Lance and athetes apparently sell shoes.  Cancer support apparently does not. NIKE only cares about one thing...stock price...and that comes from selling shoes full stop.

  • Giliana Eastwood

    You are likely right - I cannot, which is, in all probability, one of Livestrong's major obstacles.  I have been a supporter for so long, I have difficulty dividing the two.

  • Scott Schroeder

    I know what it means to be a cancer survivor. I am one. Livestrong Foundation and Nike need to be strong and move on and away from Lance. Take the good that the Foundation has done and will do and make it better in the absence of Lance. He was only one person at the Foundation not the only one. Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.... Rebrand!

  • Eric Needle

    Not wiping out, moving on. The article above makes a great point that Nike marketing produced the brand.

    The Livestrong organization is amazing. It's mission, work, and community are much bigger than Lance. Time to move on. They need to build a new brand that rides this wave to bigger and better things. The buzz they will get in a new name will ensure visibility and continued efficacy of the brand.

  • Giliana Eastwood

    If indeed it is much bigger than Armstrong, then it should be in a position to keep the name that has done so much good.  People are becoming ever more aware, particularly in view of the above, that there is a clear divide between the charity and its originator.  When the dust eventually settles, perhaps there will come a time when Armstrong might be of use to Livestrong, in some capacity, again.  He still has a following, in spite of himself. 

  • Giliana Eastwood

    Difficult decision - if so, who is to say that to wipe out its history would be supported by prospective donors?  Perhaps it would be absorbed as merely one of the myriad of choices for those looking to give away money. This would present an additional huge risk - it's not time, IMO, for such a severe amputation. Perhaps it's worth taking a chance on a post-investigation improvement.

  • Giliana Eastwood

    I, as millions, feel both furious and disenchanted with Armstrong.  I was a devoted fan over so many years, have been to the Tour or watched it, in full, every July, among his other events.  I believed in Armstrong and hung on to such belief, with ever-waning hope, until his "admission."  

    Livestrong does much needed work and there is no doubt that all it supports is direly required.  Livestrong has tried to separate itself from Armstrong, as have its sponsors.  Those who were his fans, I should think, still try to separate Armstrong from Livestrong, the two having become synonymous, obviously, as well as to separate themselves, as previously loyal supporters, from Armstrong.  As he deceived the masses, the masses have, similarly, chosen to disengage from Armstrong and his miasma.

    His deception, of course, cannot be without consequence.  Doping can be the cause of testicular cancer, among so many other adverse consequences.  The disease itself, ironically, contributed positively and heavily, to the evolvement of both Armstrong and his brand.

    So, the public is left attempting to rationalise all that Armstrong has so cockily tainted. Forgiveness, under the circumstances, may well be out of the question for Armstrong, but for Livestrong ...

    It is surely Armstrong who should solely bear his consequences, rather than those souls who are helped, or even saved through this foundation.  Were it to survive, as did he from his disease, Livestrong would remain the sole positive from Armstrong's saga.  It is Armstrong who is corrupt, not Livestrong.  I believe the entire matter, but particularly this fact requires serious consideration by all who used to support him. Can it be that we all help make Livestrong survive *despite* him?