Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast ever and one of the world’s greatest athletes, is leaving endorsement powerhouse Nike for a deal with Athleta, the athletic clothing unit of Gap Inc.
Biles is a significant signing for Athleta’s marketing efforts. She’s the first woman to capture five all-around gymnastic world championship titles, and the winner of five Olympic medals, four of them gold. She’s one of the most prominent US athletes, male or female, expected to compete in this year’s Olympics.
“We are excited to welcome Simone to the Athleta family and work together to further our mission of empowering women and girls,” said Mary Beth Laughton, president and chief executive officer of Athleta. “Simone believes in championing the next generation of female athletes as much as we do, and we are confident this partnership will continue to build community with our customers and enrich our brand.”
But Biles has often seemed overlooked during her time at Nike, despite her athletic success. A recent Nike ad highlighting Black female athletes did not include any recognizable images of Biles.
“The opportunity to encourage young girls to reach their full potential and be a force for change is incredibly powerful,” said Biles. “I admire Athleta for their commitment to recognize and support women’s individual and collective strength and, together, I believe we can help girls to confidently and passionately take on the world in their athletic endeavors and beyond.”
Nike’s problems with female athletes
Although Nike has many leading female athletes under contract, including Serena Williams, the company has faced criticism over over how it has treated athletes who become pregnant. In 2019, several Nike-sponsored athletes publicly pressured the company to extend financial support for athletes who have infants at home.
By contrast, Athleta and Gap have been building a reputation for being a supportive home for women, both athletes and executives.
Athleta and Gap (GPS) Inc. are both run by women. Gap (GPS) CEO Sonia Syngal, a native of India, is one of only 40 women CEOs of a Fortune 500 company and one of few women of color in a top job for companies on the list. It is also one of few major companies with a femal chief executive and chief financial officer.
Biles joins fellow Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix, a track star who became the first athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Athleta in 2019 after leaving Nike. Felix was one of several athletes drawing attention to Nike’s pregnancy policies.
“If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward,” Felix wrote in column in the New York Times. “It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men.”
Felix said she was offered 70% less by Nike after she had an emergency C-section in 2018.
After Felix’s column ran, Nike announced it would change its policy related to pregnant athletes.
“We recognize we can go even further,” it said at that time. “Moving forward, our contracts for female athletes will include written terms that reinforce our policy.”
Nike dominates endorsement game
This has not been a good week for Nike (NKE) and high-profile athletes. Kobe Bryant’s estate also ended its nearly 20-year relationship with Nike (NKE).
Other prominent athletes who have left Nike for its competitors include basketball’s Steph Curry, baseball’s Bryce Harper and football’s Tom Brady, all of whom have deals with Under Armour (UA), and soccer’s Lionel Messi, who has a deal with Adidas (ADDDF).
But Nike’s money dwarfs anything that other companies offer in endorsements, giving it a stranglehold on deals with most of the world’s most popular athletes. According to a company filing, the value of all Nike’s endorsement deals came to $9.3 billion as of last year.
The terms of Biles’ deal with Athleta were not announced.