Simone Biles and Gap’s Athleta brand will both benefit from her split with Nike

Will she go?
Will she go?
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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Simone Biles, the dominant star of women’s gymnastics, is ditching Nike for a deal with Gap’s Athleta activewear brand. Athleta announced the partnership today.

It’s a big victory for the brand, coming just ahead of the Tokyo Olympics—assuming they still happen—where Biles is expected to add more gold medals to her collection. (Technically she hasn’t qualified for the Olympics yet, but she’s practically certain to join the US team in Tokyo, where she plans to unveil a new vault.)

Biles has also framed it as a win for her personally. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said Athleta values more than her athletic achievements and would allow her to be a voice for women and kids. While she didn’t criticize Nike explicitly, her comments hinted at the blowback Nike received in recent years from athletes and its own employees over its failures to support women outside of athletic competition.

Nike’s leadership went through a shakeup in 2018 after internal complaints surfaced about a boys-club culture at the company. The next year, athletes including Allyson Felix, a track star and Olympic gold-medalist, called out out Nike’s maternity policies for athletes, prompting the company to revise its policies Distance runner Mary Cain later wrote an op-ed saying she suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of Nike-backed track coach Alberto Salazar. At the end of 2019 Nike employees staged a walkout and called for Nike to better support and empower female athletes and workers.

A Nike spokesperson said in a statement that the company wishes Biles the best and that Nike has always taken in pride in its support of female athletes.

Nike’s stumble is Athleta’s opportunity

Shortly after Felix’s op-ed, Athleta signed her to a sponsorship deal—its first with a professional athlete. Now it has added Biles to its roster and will serve as her “exclusive active and athleisure apparel partner,” according to the press release. It plans to create a line of signature activewear with Biles, and will work with Biles on programming focused on uplifting girls and young women in particular.

While not as big as names such as Nike and Lululemon, which reached $4.4 billion in sales last year, Athleta has been growing on a years-long wave of demand for workout clothes and leggings. Along with the Old Navy brand, it’s been helping to stem the declines at Gap Inc. as the Gap brand and its Banana Republic line flail. In 2020, Athleta’s sales increased 16% versus the prior year to surpass $1 billion despite the pandemic. Gap aims to open between 20 and 30 Athleta stores this year, it said on a March earnings call, and expects the brand’s sales to hit $2 billion in 2023.

Biles could help to bring some more attention to Athleta, which has tried to position itself as a company for women and by women. And unlike at Nike, where she did not have her own clothing line and was one extraordinary athlete among many, Biles will play a much more prominent role at Athleta.