For professional athletes, clothing choices are a big deal. While the technical performance matters, the logos on their gear are just as important, financially speaking. So when Michael Phelps, who is endorsed by Under Armour, appeared on the newest cover of Sports Illustrated with a visible Nike logo, he committed a major sports endorsement faux pas.
While it might be easy for an athlete to stick to one brand in their daily life, International Olympic Committee rules complicate endorsements around the games. Athletes must wear gear from official Olympic sponsors at official functions but can wear gear from their personal sponsors while competing. For the US team, Nike provides jackets, sweatpants, and shoes for athletes to wear during the medaling ceremony and at press conferences, while Polo Ralph Lauren outfitted American athletes for the parade of nations during the opening ceremony. Nike signed an extension with the US Olympic team in 2014 that runs through at least 2020. No financial details were provided about Nike’s deal, but the Associated Press reported that, as a tier-one team sponsor, such contracts have traditionally been worth between $12 million and $15 million over four years.
Bloomberg reports the photo shoot for the cover, which also features swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles, followed an official press conference, which might explain why Phelps was still wearing the official Team USA sweatpants. The location of the shoot, an official Olympics venue, may have added to the confusion. But Bloomberg also notes that in behind-the-scenes videos, Phelps is wearing Under Armour shoes and a polo that isn’t produced by Nike or Under Armour.
Athletes have gotten creative over the years when it comes to hiding logos that conflict with their personal endorsement deals. American decathlete Jeremy Taiwo covers any logo that isn’t Brooks with tape when he competes. Simone Biles, who is endorsed by Nike, even wears the Under Armour gymnastics uniform the team wears in competition on the Sports Illustrated cover. Whether it was intentional or not, the Under Armour logo is conveniently hidden from the camera. (Ledecky is attending Stanford University starting later this summer and will swim in the collegiate ranks for at least one season, forgoing sponsorship opportunities for now.)
For Under Armour, which has endorsed Phelps since 2010, seeing one of the company’s most prominent athletes wearing its biggest rival’s gear on the cover of a magazine read by over 18 million people has to be a little embarrassing.