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Lo-res_KECNYG-SArguably the greatest gymnast of all time, and objectively the most decorated one, Simone Biles has a powerful, international platform. Her recent decision to sign a sponsorship agreement with Athleta, a women-oriented brand owned by The Gap, suggests that she is determined to make use of it.

The partnership involves several levels. Biles will represent the brand’s clothing, including sporting its logo at the 2022 Olympics. But in addition, Athleta has agreed to underwrite a post-Olympics exhibition tour organized by Biles that will feature other gymnasts as well.

Both of these elements represent challenges to other recognizable actors. First, Biles previously had an endorsement contract with Nike. In leaving that partnership, she seemingly is offering an implicit criticism of the company, though she refused to criticize it outright. But another elite athlete, the sprinter Allyson Felix, was more forthcoming when she left Nike to sign with Athleta, strongly criticizing Nike for its standing policy to financially penalize the female athletes it had under sponsorship contracts who became pregnant. Nike also has been subject to allegations of toxic work environments and sexual harassment claims by employees.

Second, whereas Biles avoided outright criticisms of Nike, she has been vocal in her issues with USA Gymnastics. This organization governs the sport in the United States and historically has been the host, and primary beneficiary, of post-Olympics exhibition tours of athletes. But many athletes, including Biles, have held USA Gymnastics directly responsible for ignoring and allowing the ongoing abuse they suffered for years, committed by the national team doctor, who has since been convicted of sexual abuse. If Biles refuses to join the USA Gymnastics tour and instead receives funding from Athleta to put on her own Gold Over America tour, it represents a direct attempt to undermine and pull support from the governing body.

Finally, Biles’s decision reflects her own desire to function as a role model who encourages women’s achievements. Athleta actively promotes its own status as a female-headed company and makes consistent, vocal commitments to diversity and inclusivity. By linking with a brand with this particular image, Biles can build her own public image and reputation, in ways that resonate with her own preferences.

Discussion Question:

  1. Which broader macroeconomic and societal trends appear to be driving this particular sponsorship?

Source: Louise Radnofsky, “Simone Biles Leaves Nike for Partnership with Athleta,” The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2021; Kevin Draper, “Simone Biles Leaves Nike for a Sponsor that Focuses on Women,” The New York Times, April 23, 2021