Nike Found an Unlikely Partner in National Geographic to Co-Produce a Marathon Documentary

Breaking2, airing ad-free today, is one of the network’s biggest brand partnerships ever

National Geographic, not Nike, had final cut on the Breaking2 documentary, which the companies jointly produced. Nike
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Viewers who watch the documentary Breaking2 on National Geographic tonight won’t see a single ad during the hour-long broadcast—but the show represents one of the network’s biggest brand partnerships yet.

National Geographic teamed with Nike to produce Breaking2, which follows three of the world’s top distance runners as they spend a year refining their training with scientists from the Nike Sport Research Lab with the goal of becoming the first person to complete a marathon in under two hours.

“We’re true content partners, interested in telling a story,” said Courteney Monroe, CEO, National Geographic Global Networks, about the Nike partnership.

Nike coordinated the year of testing, training analysis, product innovation design and development, and race day coordination. Brad Wilkins, director of the Nike Explore team in the Nike Sport Research Lab, led the team of scientists.

Yes, the Nike logo can be spotted throughout Breaking2 on the runners’ training clothes and shoes, and on the pacecar that tracks them during their final race. The show’s opening will mention that Breaking2 is presented in partnership with and sponsored by Nike. But the documentary doesn’t feel like a Nike ad—after all, most athletes wear gear with prominent branding—though Nike certainly hopes that viewers will be interested in the products used by the runners and scientists.

“There’s obviously Nike in it, but organically, because Nike sponsored these athletes and this scientific technology that they’re pioneering. But it’s about the human potential, which is a story that’s very organic for National Geographic to tell,” said Monroe.

A year ago, Nike had already hired a production company, Dirty Robber, to make Breaking2, and were initially just looking for a media partner to air the documentary and help with promotion. “We’ve never done advertising with them, so we were not even on the consideration list,” said Monroe.

But then a National Geographic employee happened to invite a friend who worked in Nike’s marketing department to the network’s Mars premiere in New York last fall. “They were like, ‘What is going on with Nat Geo? They’re elevating this brand and doing things differently. Maybe we should talk to them,’” recalled Monroe.

The companies met just before Christmas and hit it off, so much so that Nike asked National Geographic to come aboard as a full co-producer of the documentary. “Not only were they interested in the reach of our platform, but they really wanted our storytelling lens. Whereas if they had gone to ESPN, Dirty Robber was going to produce it and they would have just acquired it,” said Monroe.

This is only the second time that National Geographic has teamed up with a brand, hand-in-hand, to jointly produce a program. Two years ago, the network partnered with GE on Breakthrough, a six-part documentary series in which each episode focused on a scientific discoveries in areas like brain science, pandemics and cyborg technology.

“That was a very unconventional partnership in the sense that we were 50/50, production and marketing partners,” said Monroe. “There was no media dollars at all, it was just a partnership to tell stories that we were mutually interested in. There were a few episodes where GE scientists and GE products were featured, but only if it was organic, and not in every episode. We’re just two brands committed to science and innovation.”

As Breaking2 debuts tonight, Monroe said National Geographic is open to partnering with brands to produce other programs, under the right circumstances. “We’re interested in doing these things that stretch the traditional boundaries of advertising,” she said. “Our reputation is all about authenticity and credibility, so anything we do needs to be very transparent, and we would want the storytelling to feel organic to our brand.”

Both Breaking2 and Breakthrough, she noted, “are stories we might be telling anyway, but how great it is to tell it with a brand. So it can’t feel like something that is shoehorned into a story that doesn’t fit with us,” she said. “It makes difference to viewers, too. Otherwise they sniff [out] that it feels just like branded entertainment.”

National Geographic, not Nike, had final cut on Breaking2, just as the network did with Breakthrough. “So it’s not like Nike was making edit changes, though we certainly showed it to them,” said Monroe. “That’s another parameter that’s really important, because of the trust that viewers have in us.”

Aside from co-producing programs for the network, Monroe said she’s eager to work with Fox Networks Group’s new president of advertising revenue, Joe Marchese, to develop other non-traditional partnerships with brands. “All of the new ad products and advertising innovations that he is pushing, we will benefit from,” she said. “He’s looking at the entire portfolio. There’s nothing specific yet, but he’s so smart and cutting-edge in his thinking, I’m thrilled he’s in that role.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.