Allyson Felix is one of the most decorated athletes in history, a six-time Olympic-sprinting gold-medal winner and an 11-time world champion. But on May 22, she took a chance that really scared her: She spoke out against the Swoosh.
In a New York Times op-ed entitled “My Own Nike Pregnancy Story,” she used the opportunity to voice support for former Nike teammates and Olympic runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, who broke their nondisclosure agreements with the company to share their pregnancy stories in a Times investigation. This wasn’t an easy decision, because Felix had been a Nike-sponsored athlete since 2010. In her op-ed, Felix revealed she had been in contract renegotiations with Nike while pregnant in 2018 and the company wanted to pay her 70% less. At the time she wrote, “If that’s what they think I’m worth now, I’ll accept that. What I’m not willing to accept is the enduring status quo around maternity. 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. 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. We’ve been at a standstill ever since.”
While Felix was anxious about the reaction to her story, at Gap-owned Athleta, chief marketing officer Sheila Shekar Pollak and her team were looking for the brand’s first-ever athlete sponsorship opportunity. After they read the Times article, they thought they’d found the perfect candidate. “We were so inspired by her passion, purpose, and courage that we immediately picked up the phone,” says Pollak.
Fast-forward to today, and Athleta and Felix are officially announcing their partnership, which includes Felix consulting on product design, new cobranded lines, and working together to empower women and girls through sports.
“For me, it was really important that our values aligned, and there was just that genuine connection,” says Felix. “I’m just excited to be supported holistically. I’m really looking forward to what we’re going to create together.”
The brand is announcing the partnership, appropriately, with an open letter to Felix in the New York Times:
“Today, fueled by our shared commitment to empower female athletes everywhere, we’re honored to welcome you to our team. As women and athletes, we experience the joys and challenges that come from being both. It’s why we promise to support you—as an athlete, a mother, an activist—as you continue to break records, break barriers and break the silence. Together, we push our limits. We speak our minds and live our values. Because, whether it’s with the force of your body or the power of your voice, you’re only getting stronger. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your legacy.”
Women’s activewear has been a major engine for sports and apparel brands over the last few years, and the category continues to grow apace. A 2018 report by Allied Market Research estimates that it’ll rise from $119.08 billion in 2017 to $216.87 billion by 2025.
For Pollak, a big part of differentiating the Athleta brand is to show that it sees its customers as more than just one-dimensional athletes—they’re multidimensional humans. “Everything we do comes back to our mission of empowering women and girls through sports,” says Pollak. “We talk a lot about ‘the power of she,’ which is the collective power of women. For us, Allyson is the ultimate embodiment of that. This reinforces everything we stand for.”
For Felix, who returned to racing for the first time in 13 months this past weekend at the U.S. national track and field championships, the new deal with Athleta is a validation of why she spoke out in the first place.
“Speaking out was so scary; it feels risky; you don’t know the consequences that will come from it. I was inspired by the women who came before me and just felt our voices are more powerful together, and I couldn’t sit by silently on the sidelines. So to be in the place I’m in now, and feeling fully supported, it’s an amazing feeling. I’m so happy Athleta’s willing to take the lead here and really help redefine what sponsorship is.”