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How Allyson Felix and Athleta are rewriting the rules of sponsorship

“I feel like the world is changing,” the track and field star said at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. “We haven’t given athletes much room to be able to seem human.”

How Allyson Felix and Athleta are rewriting the rules of sponsorship
[Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images]

Allyson Felix made headlines when she took home yet another gold medal in Tokyo this year. With 11 medals to her name, Felix had set a new record, making her the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history.

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Felix has been uniquely influential off the track, too. While pregnant in 2018, she found herself mired in a dispute with Nike over the terms of her new sponsorship contract. After two former teammates spoke out about their own experiences with Nike, Felix revealed in a New York Times op-ed that Nike had proposed slashing her pay by 30% after she was pregnant—an offer she wouldn’t accept. Amid the public pressure, Nike eventually introduced a new maternity policy that secured protections for pregnant athletes, which barred the company from making any reductions in pay for 18 months or terminating a contract if an athlete declined to compete while pregnant.

A few months after going public with her story, Felix inked a new deal with women’s activewear brand Athleta. It was a first for Athleta, since the brand had never sponsored an athlete before. But Athleta also saw it as an opportunity to reimagine the relationship between athlete and sponsor.

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“We set out to completely rewrite the playbook for athlete sponsorships,” Athleta CEO Mary Beth Laughton said during a panel at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, where she appeared alongside Felix. “A huge part of that is, first of all, partnering with people that have shared values with us—[that’s] so, so important—but then also really looking at the partners as full people who do so much in their lives and are, of course, amazing athletes, but are also mothers and entrepreneurs and activists.”

That means not only offering athletes the more traditional elements of a partnership, like product collaborations, but also empowering them to follow their other passions, whether that’s through social justice work or content creation. “Allyson definitely has a huge seat at the table, giving us her insights and her voice and her points of view on the product [and] everything else,” Laughton said, “and we so welcome that.”

Felix’s latest project with Athleta was an especially personal one. Leading up to the Olympics, Felix worked with Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation to launch a $200,000 grant that would help cover childcare costs for athletes who were competing. (The grant recipients, who are being awarded $10,000 each, will be announced in October.) “I came back right away from having my daughter back to competition,” Felix said. “I saw firsthand how difficult that is and how you need to be supported. I remember going to my first world championships [when my daughter] Cammy was 10 months old, and the challenge of bringing a child that young overseas. I had a roommate. How does that work? How are you breastfeeding?”

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Though Felix has the support of a sponsor like Athleta, the same isn’t true for countless athletes—particularly those who go to the Olympics. For athletes who can’t rely on a lucrative sponsorship deal, a childcare stipend could be invaluable. “It was so important to be able to start to do something about this and really trying to shift the industry,” Felix said. “We hope that this is just the beginning—that we can really change the way that things are done.”

Felix’s advocacy for athletes who are mothers mirrors a larger trend in sports, one also embodied by the likes of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, both of whom have talked openly about their struggles with mental health. (Biles also happened to leave Nike and sign with Athleta earlier this year.) “I feel like the world is changing,” Felix said. “In the past, we haven’t given athletes much room to be able to seem human. They’re supposed to be invincible, and they’re supposed to be so tough.”

But athletes like Felix are using their platforms to usher in an era of greater honesty and transparency, and to remind the public that athletes have lives beyond their sport. “For the longest time, I really thought that people only cared about my performance,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve grown and obviously matured, and it was through my own experiences that I finally found my voice. Becoming a mother was probably one of the biggest ways that happened, and thinking about my daughter and the world that she’ll grow up in made me feel like, ‘Okay, I need to do this.'”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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