Every professional athlete knows brand endorsements are the real butter atop their breadwinning. Similarly, brands know star athletes are big business. In what can only be called a stunning upset, Nike has apparently lost a real one, as it was announced Friday that America’s most decorated gymnast, the phenom known as Simone Biles, has exited her partnership with the juggernaut to join Gap’s Athleta.
As Biles told the Wall Street Journal in an interview (without implicating her now-former sponsor), she was attracted to the female-focused brand for its close alignment with her values.
“I felt like it wasn’t just about my achievements, it’s what I stood for and how they were going to help me use my voice and also be a voice for females and kids,” she told WSJ. “I feel like they also support me, not just as an athlete, but just as an individual outside of the gym and the change that I want to create, which is so refreshing,” later adding: “I also feel like Athleta is committed to diversity and inclusion, of all women, backgrounds, ages, sizes, abilities and races.”
Biles is among several Olympic-level athletes to depart the sportswear juggernaut in recent years, among them track-and-field stars (and 2019 The Root 100 honorees) Alysia Montaño and Allyson Felix. Earlier this week, the estate of Kobe Bryant followed suit. Felix decamped from Nike to partner with Athleta, a female-led and 97 percent female-staffed company, in 2019 after publishing an op-ed in the New York Times detailing her harrowing experience dealing with the brand as a pregnant athlete and new mother; a damning follow-up to an explosive Mother’s Day op-ed calling out Nike weeks earlier by fellow mom Montaño.
“When Allyson joined our team, we recognized right away how powerful this was for the brand, but we also recognized how deep that relationship went,” Athleta Chief Product Officer Jana Henning told WSJ. “And so as we were thinking about, ‘Who do we want to partner with, who is out there in the world?’ Simone was an obvious choice just from the beginning.”
Both Felix and Biles will be competing at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo. More details on Biles’ deal with Athleta (the amount of which remains undisclosed) from WSJ:
With Athleta, Biles will have her own performance wear line, including products for wearing to and from the gym.
She said the company has also pledged to support the post-Olympics gymnastics tour that she is planning to mount herself, rather than the usual tour backed by USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body. The tour could help reshape professional opportunities for elite gymnasts for years to come.
Athleta and Biles said that the company would give her a platform to be an activist participating in “honest conversations” with women and girls, and that she felt that with a predominantly female design team, she was joining a company that was “truly for women by women.”
Nike may want to consider the same, since, as WSJ points out, the company has also been under fire in recent years for gender-based issues within its corporate culture. Most notably, in 2018, several female employees circulated a survey (h/t WSJ) which alleged inappropriate behavior by male staffers, as well as gender and pay disparities at the executive level, citing a “a boys-club culture.” The survey led to a formal review, several executive hirings, and a public apology from then-CEO Mark Parker.
Clearly, there’s more to be done in making their female athletes feel valued, as the third most-medaled gymnast in the world (to date) has opted to end her six-year relationship with the brand.
“[N]ow that I’m older and kind of in the world a little bit more, I see and I know and I learn and I grow from things, so to partner with Athleta, I think they stand for everything that I stand for,” said Biles, who also added her voice to the chorus of gymnasts whose testimonies led to the conviction of serial rapist and sexual abuser and former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. “I just thought it was time for a change,” she added.
As for Nike, a spokeswoman stated: “Simone Biles is an incredible athlete and we wish her the very best,” adding, “we will continue to champion, celebrate and evolve to support our female athletes.”