Simone Biles leaves Nike for sponsor focused on women


Most decorated gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, has signed an agreement to represent women’s clothing brand Athleta and is leaving longtime sponsor Nike, just three months before the start of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo .

The deal, announced on Friday, also includes provisions for Athleta to fund a post-Olympic gymnastics exhibition tour hosted by Biles that will represent a direct financial challenge for USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body.

In interviews, Biles suggested that she felt more aligned with the values ​​of Athleta, a division of clothing retailer Gap, than with those of Nike. “I think they represent everything I represent” she told the Wall Street Journal of Athleta, who first signaled the deal.

Over the past few years, Nike has faced a number of scandals over the way it treats employees and sponsored athletes. Women spoke of a toxic atmosphere at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and on sponsorship contracts which penalize pregnant athletes. A Nike trainer has also been charged with verbally assaulting female runners and has been suspended by the US Center for SafeSport.

Biles has joined a small number of athletes who have recently left Nike. This week, the estate of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who died in a helicopter crash last year, let her contract with the company expire, and his widow, Vanessa Bryant, said she would sue a new agreement.

By sponsoring Biles’ Gold Over America tour, Athleta is providing her with the financial means to more directly undermine USA Gymnastics, an organization she has repeatedly said she cannot be trusted given her inability to protect girls and the wives of Lawrence G. Nassar, the national team doctor. who was convicted of several counts of sexual abuse of athletes. A spokeswoman for USA Gymnastics, which has traditionally run a post-Olympics tour, said the organization does not have such a plan for this year.

Athleta will also develop a sportswear line with Biles, which will work with the company’s design team. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“It’s more than just a sportswear sponsorship,” said Mary Beth Laughton, President of Athleta. “We really see this as a way to support Simone throughout her life. As she approaches the next stage of her career in Tokyo and beyond, we really want to support that as well. “

Biles initially signed with Nike in 2015, shortly after turning pro and winning the individual all-around title at the world championships. She represented Nike at the 2016 Olympics, where she won five medals, including four gold. She is a favorite to add to her medal harvest at the Tokyo Games. It is widely believed that these will be the last Olympics for 24-year-old Biles, although she recently suggested that she could participate in the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.

“Our contract with Simone Biles is over and we wish her the best,” Nike spokesperson Josh Benedek said in a statement.

At Athleta, Biles will join track sprinter Allyson Felix, an American compatriot who won nine Olympic medals and was also sponsored by Nike for several years. Felix signed with Athleta in 2019, shortly after participating in a dazzling video that criticized Nike for financially penalizing athletes who got pregnant. Nike changed its policies soon after.

In recent months, Nike has failed to renew the contracts of several other track athletes, such as long jumper Tianna Bartoletta and pole vaulter Piotr Lisek, both of whom hope to compete in the Olympics this summer.

The Olympics are the biggest marketing milestone for Nike and for its competitors, like Adidas and Puma. Sports brands compete fiercely to sponsor expected medalists and entire governing bodies of a sport. Even without Biles and Felix, the Nike swoosh will be ubiquitous in Tokyo, where it will be represented by hundreds of athletes as well as many national governing bodies sending teams to the Games, including the American Football Federation and the USA Track. & Field.

Gymnasts competing for the United States at the Olympics will wear uniforms made by GK Elite.

Marketing at the Olympics is important to sports brands not because of the direct sale of equipment, but because of the halo effect that the event creates around the brand.

Nike and other companies want to tell potential customers a story about elite athletic performance and product innovation – a story that becomes easier to sell (and perhaps believe) when hundreds of athletes wear his shoes and clothes while winning gold.

Athleta, whose only sponsored athletes are Felix and Biles, sells sportswear more general than sports-specific clothing, and her brand is focused on inclusion, female empowerment and sustainability. In moving sports sponsors away from Nike, Athleta joined other niche sportswear brands like Oiselle, whose best-known sponsor is Kara Goucher, a long-distance runner who was sponsored by Nike and has become a critic. fierce business.

“We truly admire the courage of Simone and Allyson, and all of the young women and athletes who spoke up and used their voices,” said Laughton, President of Athleta.

While Biles’ decision implicitly criticizes Nike, his tour explicitly targets USA Gymnastics. Biles, one of more than 300 athletes who said Nassar assaulted them, has repeatedly criticized USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee as appearing more interested in avoid responsibility for Nassar’s abuses than to find out the truth.

Now Biles, with help from Athleta, is challenging what was once a major source of income for USA Gymnastics.

Biles Gold Over America Tour, who was slated before she signed the deal with Athleta, will visit 35 cities across the United States in the fall after the Olympics. The biggest stars to have signed with Biles so far are Laurie Hernandez, who won a team gold alongside Biles at the 2016 Olympics, and Katelyn Ohashi, a former UCLA gymnast whose University routines have often produced viral videos.

Although USA Gymnastics does not report specific income from its traditional post-Olympic tour, the organization’s annual financial statements suggest the series has been a big source of money.

In 2016, when it hosted a post-Olympic tour of 36 cities, USA Gymnastics grossed $ 12.9 million of what it called “national event revenue.” In 2017, it reported $ 4.1 million in domestic event revenue and in 2018, the latest year of data available, only $ 2.1 million.

USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018, after more than 100 lawsuits were filed by survivors of Nassar abuse, and it is still continuing the reorganization process.

“Although USA Gymnastics has no plans for a post-Olympic tour in 2021, we are thrilled that the Gold Over America Tour allows fans across the country to connect with our sport and the incredible athletes who will be participating,” Meredith Yeoman, a spokesperson for USA Gymnastics, said in an email.

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