Female athletes go small to make it big
Future. Female athletes are finding that newer, smaller brands are allowing them to embrace the entirety of their interests and human experiences without fear of retribution. This has led to a more humane lifestyle for top athletes, who are able to supplement athletic accomplishment with storytelling and activism. As mental health becomes a central conversation, these smaller brands may be embracing the longevity of an athlete’s popularity as a person as opposed to a short-term competitor.
Mental health takes the gold
Once limited by very “you accomplish this, and we’ll give you this” deals, female athletes are switching from the exposure of big brands to the bigger upside of small ones.
- Gymnast Simone Biles switched from Nike to Athleta because “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.”
- When Biles opted not to compete in some competitions during this past week’s Tokyo Olympics, Athleta supported the decision.
- Sprinter Allyson Felix did the same in 2017 over Nike’s pregnancy policy, which reduced pay for athletes after a year of taking time off.
- With Athleta, Felix created a grant program for athletes with children that covers childcare costs while at competitions.
In addition, several female athletes said that they moved to the smaller brands because it gave them equity stakes in the company, brought them on in creative roles at the brand, or allowed them to give input on new products.
The whole me
In the modern digital era, brands are realizing that it’s not enough to just invest in an athlete’s results, but in the entirety of the athlete’s brand.
- Social media is popping up in more contracts, since brands are realizing that being an active public face adds as much value as accomplishments in sports.
- Smaller brands have embraced what runner Mary Cain calls the “and” nature of being a pro athlete in today’s environment — “athlete and activist” or “athlete and mental health advocate.”
Lululemon chief brand officer Nikki Neuburger noted that storytelling is now a key part of any athlete’s public profile, saying, “there’s still so much tremendous recognition that comes with winning and performing at an elite level. What’s changed over time is that 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.”