Current Issue
This Month's Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

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]