Tanya Lee | Allyson Felix & the new athlete image
This week, America’s most decorated track-and-field athlete Allyson Felix announced that she had signed a new apparel contract.
But it’s not with Nike, who she most famously took to task earlier this year in what she explained was a standoff with the world’s biggest athletic company.
In a New York Times op-ed, Felix said that she was in contract renegotiations with Nike while pregnant and was offered 70 per cent less. Allyson’s concerns, as stated by her, were based on not having any protection around maternity. Her issue was that Nike couldn’t contractually guarantee that she wouldn’t be punished if she didn’t perform at her best in the months surrounding childbirth.
She stated: “I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?”
Felix’s newly signed contract is with Athleta, a sportswear brand owned by a popular American clothing company, Gap. Athleta is a little-known brand globally but now has on its ambassador roster the most decorated athlete in America’s track-and-field history. This is the company’s first official sponsorship, which comes at a time when all eyes are on the six-time Olympic gold medallist, who famously returned to the track last weekend for the US National Trials.
Athleta stands to profit from the legions of fans who have grown to love Felix and her good-girl persona. From a purely business standpoint, it’s an excellent move which takes into account that women are more interested in the values that a brand embodies more so than just how well an athlete performs on the track. It is the woman who shows up in the arena, against all odds, that has already won in the eyes of many fans. Athleta hopes that Felix will be a major engine for increased sales, with a 2018 report by Allied Market Research estimating that women’s activewear sales will rise from US$119.08 billion in 2017 to US$216.87 billion by 2025. That’s big business.
A new image
But in sports, Allyson Felix represents a new image.
It’s an image we see more often these days. It’s the image of the mom as an athlete, where having a child isn’t treated with any shame and secrecy but a woman gets to continue pursuing her dreams. We see this image every time Serena Williams steps on to a court as her daughter cheers from the stands after every serve.
We see it each time Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce takes to the track. We see it when Reggae Girl Chenya Matthews posts a photo on Instagram of her nurturing her newborn after a training session. And we saw it last weekend after Allyson ran her 400m and then raced to the stands to greet her daughter post-race.
This image is becoming increasingly familiar and is bankable to many brands that recognise that a woman is ‘more than just an athlete’. If that sounds familiar, it’s a slogan often used by Nike to champion everything from LeBron James’ standoff with a reporter who told him to shut up and dribble to Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racism in America.
For female sports fans everywhere, athletes are incredibly inspiring. Add a new layer to that when the athlete becomes a mother, and she is now a superhero, raising a family, but also continuing her career. The narrative is simple. People should face their fears, overcome their obstacles, achieve all their dreams and be all they want to be while not allowing society’s limitations to get in the way of success.
And that message is now clear to Allyson’s continuously growing fanbase. On her Athleta sponsorship announcement on Instagram, fans poured in their congratulations and support. One woman wrote,
“I fight every day for my kids. In the classroom, at work, on the streets … they are my legacy. They are my life’s work. They are a reflection of me … mother of five girls.”
So now, Nike continues to bank heavily on its many athletes who are expected to meet pre-existing performance requirements, and who are used by Nike in numerous commercials as agents of social change. Allyson Felix is one such agent, except her new, and profitable narrative as mother, athlete, and activist are to the benefit of Athleta, and not Nike.