Business of Design

Why Women Athletes Are Leaving Megabrands Like Nike

For some women athletes, eschewing contracts with household-name sports brands in favor of more niche names creates opportunities to use their voices and benefit from more individualized resources and protections.

Simone Biles for Athleta. Credit: Athleta

Free People’s activewear spinoff FP Movement was once more synonymous with “brunching” than boundary-pushing athletic endeavors. Then tennis star Sloane Stephens signed with the brand instead of renewing her Nike contract. Stephens, who won the 2017 U.S. Open, is just the latest world-class athlete to leave behind what seemed like a dream deal with one of activewear’s biggest names. But avid sports fans may know that Nike is grappling with a less-than-stellar track record of supporting women athletes on its roster, among other issues.

In 2019, American sprinter Allyson Felix, one of history’s most decorated track and field stars, went public with her account of Nike pressuring her to reattain record-setting form as soon as possible following an emergency C-section the year prior. While renegotiating her contract, Nike was only willing to pay Felix 30 percent of her rate before the pregnancy. “I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth,” she wrote. “I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?” Nike declined Felix’s request. After a public outcry, the brand updated its maternity leave policy in August 2019. By then, Felix had inked a deal with Gap-owned Athleta, becoming its first sponsored athlete.

Two years later, gymnastics powerhouse Simone Biles followed suit. “It wasn’t just about my achievements,” Biles told the Wall Street Journal about Athleta, her new sponsor. “It’s what I stood for, and how they were going to help me use my voice.” Biles soon created her own workout and athleisure lines for Athleta, which offered her financial support for a gymnastics tour following the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. The arrangement also freed her from reliance on USA Gymnastics, the sport’s disgraced former governing body.

Sloane Stephens for FP Movement. Credit: FP Movement.

Creative input, resources, and enthusiasm to support athletes as people seems to underscore the shift toward brands with slightly less name recognition, but which can offer more individualized attention. This is a key part of the economics of womens’ sports. Both Business of Fashion and the New York Times have noted that, compared to men, women athletes often have more engaged followings online and off. Smaller brands can be more amenable to supporting athletes’ chosen causes and initiatives, like Athleta and Felix’s grant program to cover childcare costs for women athletes who are also mothers and caregivers.

It behooves brands to show up and shell out for their ambassadors. Consider the monetary incentives: in 2021, Lululemon reported an eye-watering sales surge of 63 percent in the U.S. and 49 percent internationally. They weren’t alone. That year, the global market for athleisure was valued at nearly $307 billion with expected compound annual growth of 8.9 percent. This momentum was palpable in real time, with brands beyond those who cater to athletes and sports fans day-to-day looking for opportunities to align themselves with the world of sports.

In 2021, Olympic steeplechaser Colleen Quigley switched sponsorship from Nike to Lululemon, whose chief brand officer Nikki Neuburger told the New York Times that sponsorship deals are changing to reflect the times. “There’s still so much tremendous recognition that comes with winning and performing at an elite level. What’s changed over time is in and of itself, that’s not what’s inspiring people—they want to know the highs and lows of the journey to get there, they want to know what you’re doing outside of the track and not just on race day.”

Perhaps no one embodies this better than Naomi Osaka. In 2020, the young tennis great, a Nike-sponsored athlete, flew ahead of the curve by teaming up with Adeam founder and creative director Hanako Maeda leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Boundary-breaking partnerships with Levi’s and Louis Vuitton followed. While a Louis Vuitton ambassador, she went on to wear a couture ensemble by the fashion house as she co-chaired the 2021 Met Gala, a position with invaluable cultural cachet. Osaka’s is an interesting case study in the trajectory of women athletes as mega-influencers, illustrating the power of the deeply passionate fanbases behind them.

Naomi Osaka and Cordae at the 2021 Met Gala. Credit: AP

Tracksmith, a relative newcomer to the activewear scene at just 10 years old, has carved out its own niche: supporting the hundreds of high-performing amateur athletes in track and field and road racing who compete at the Olympic Trials, some of whom go on to earn spots on Team USA, but don’t yet have sponsors. In the 2020 Olympic Marathon trials, 138 competitors—20 percent of the competitor field—took advantage of the free competition apparel kits offered by the brand. 

“We wanted to have an impact at really important marquee events in our sport,” Nick Willis, Tracksmith’s community manager, told Surface. “We felt like we could have a much bigger impact by supporting all those athletes who don’t have sponsorships versus maybe sponsoring one or two professional athletes.” 

Tracksmith’s presence at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials kicked off the brand’s Amateur Support Program (ASP), which supplies selected athletes with a gear stipend, racing kit, and support at “marquee events,” in Willis’s words, like the Trials or other competitions that call for the country’s highest-performing athletes. The program also puts the indie brand’s wares in front of a niche segment of devoted spectators whose yearly spending on running-related expenses can exceed $1,100

Tracksmith Amateur Support Program athletes competing at the 2022 Toyota USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Credit: Tracksmith

“As athletes improve—and some of these athletes…made the Olympics, some of whom had the opportunity to sign more lucrative opportunities with some of the other footwear brands—we see that as great. We’ve succeeded,” Willis says. “Our goal is to help athletes in this void between the college experience and the professional world.”

For every pro sponsorship or support initiative, smaller brands can differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace, proving to engaged fans with money to spend that their gear is good enough for the pros—and the underdogs vying with them for a podium finish.

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