Chiney Ogwumike and her sister, Nneka, announced in 2017, while surrounded by three stripes, they had swapped out their Nike swooshes for Adidas. It was an eye-raising leap away from an established powerhouse and endorsement king that has its choice of top stars. Nike signs most No. 1 draft picks, as it did the Ogwumikes, and those athletes rarely went elsewhere.
“Leaving a Nike isn’t an easy decision,” Allison Galer, Chiney Ogwumike’s longtime agent, told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a risk, in any way.”
The Ogwumike sisters, both of whom were Rookie of the Year winners, could be considered early adopters of women athletes leaving Nike’s roster for one that better fits their needs, wants and values. And today’s movers are going beyond the traditional sports apparel companies in their exits.
In a three-week span this spring, Olympic superstar Simone Biles ended a six-year partnership with Nike to join Gap’s Athleta brand, and Breanna Stewart, the four-time NCAA and two-time Seattle Storm champion, announced she was signing with Puma rather than re-up with Nike.
All of these women have personal reasons for changing course that ultimately come down to what company and brand makes the most sense in their careers and legacies.
“Female athletes have to do what’s best for them at all times,” said Galer, who works exclusively with women athletes as founder of Disrupt the Game sports agency. “Because they don’t get to have the cushion of millions of millions of dollars that they’re making [in their sport]. They’ve got to show up and perform every day. Literally.”
It is disruption in a market and as that market becomes more saturated, particularly with growing investment in women’s sports, it’s likely more women athletes follow the trend of leaving large, established brands for ones fans might not even be aware of yet.
Nike's mainstream appeal to future niche marketing
Dr. Courtney Cox sees it every semester in her classroom. As an assistant professor of race and sport in the Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies department at the University of Oregon, Cox notices how her students, the future of the business, view the business marketing. They want a niche approach, and would rather put every athlete out there to target individualized audiences.
“They want to be individually marketed to and I think that the Nikes of the world are still thinking about wide mainstream appeal,” Cox, whose current research includes girls and women's basketball, told Yahoo Sports. “And that wide mainstream appeal is always a certain kind of body that is positioned as kind of the dominant, normative kind of way of thinking."
When a company signs as many athletes to endorsement deals as Nike does, those athletes sometimes “get lost in the shuffle” and find themselves tiered by importance and marketability, Cox said. She pointed to three-time NBA champion Stephen Curry leaving Nike for Under Armour in 2013, two years before his first title. He went from being one of Nike’s basketball stars to being Under Armour’s No. 1. And within 16 months came a signature shoe.
Stewart, who is more decorated than Curry in the same time frame, made a nearly identical move by signing with Puma and immediately announcing a signature shoe that could be released next year.
“Where others saw a risk, Puma took advantage of it,” the 2018 WNBA MVP told the Ringer in May. “Women’s basketball players deserve to have signature shoes.”
That’s been a rallying cry in WNBA circles dating back a decade. Stewart, 26, is the 10th player in the league’s 25-year history to have a signature shoe, and the first since Candace Parker’s Ace Versatility with Adidas was released. Nike released six of them, but the last was Diana Taurasi's in 2006. If Nike wasn’t going to give a bonafide basketball superstar the crown jewel of endorsements, possibly viewing it as a niche market, it makes sense to go elsewhere.
“[Athletes are] in a position where you start to think about what you need,” Cox said. “You think about your own kind of branding and the potential of that.
“I think kind of divesting from Nike is just one way that’s starting to happen as they’re starting to build these new kind of branding portfolios. Nike is becoming less and less valuable because of this kind of tiering that’s happening in terms of who they really focus on and who is promoted within these larger corporations.”
It was similar for Ogwumike in 2017 when she and Galer looked at what Nike had done with her and what other companies might be interested. They honed in on what Ogwumike, also a rising talent at ESPN, wanted out of a deal that might be different from what a multiple-time champion would want.
“She’s not your cookie-cutter best player on the court who is an MVP,” Galer said. “I mean, she could be the best player, don’t get me wrong — but she’s not the MVP, championship [player]. She’s different.
“With Adidas, I think we knew [it was right] based on what they were saying. And how they were evaluating opportunity and wanting to put WNBA players in campaigns and wanting to be creative with their marketing around WNBA players and use them in a different way across category, more or less. That was enticing to us.”
But it’s not just a decision between two big sports centric brands anymore. The market has broadened since 2017 and those who have left Nike in recent months are joining brands that don’t usually sponsor athletic GOATs.
Athlete empowerment in endorsements
The options in the earlier days of large athlete endorsement deals were limited. It was Gatorade or Powerade. Nike or Adidas. But now there are more sports drinks on the market. More athletic brands. More choice. An athlete can sell anything they and a company want.
“There were these very narrow understandings of what athletes could sell to us,” Cox told Yahoo Sports. “And now I think so much of this has changed.”
Athletes, particularly women or nonbinary people who face more obstacles and discrimination in the sport, are more empowered than ever before. WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, one of Galer's clients, has said for years she won’t align with a brand she doesn’t support and now, Galer said, “you’re just seeing that 10-fold because there’s more opportunities and there’s more partnerships that women are getting.”
These athletes are making choices for their own interests and values with more money and investment in their game. Brands are getting creative with ways that go beyond the biggest payday to bring an athlete onboard.
“Female athletes have been trying to do different things for a long time,” Galer said, “but now some of the opportunities are actually coming through where you have some of these companies that are making the effort in a real and authentic way and understanding where the value lies there and that it’s necessary.”
Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, has spoken extensively about finding and using her voice since the sexual abuse scandal in gymnastics. Her exit from Nike was a bombshell three months out from the Tokyo Olympics, when interest for her and the sport is at its highest.
“I felt like it wasn’t just about my achievements, it’s what I stood for and how they were going to help me use my voice and also be a voice for females and kids,” Biles, 24, told the Wall Street Journal. “I feel like they also support me, not just as an athlete, but just as an individual outside of the gym and the change that I want to create, which is so refreshing.”
The Olympic athletes who've left Nike have made similar remarks, though few spoke of Nike directly. They’ve also taken a new route of more female-focused, by-women-for-women brands, as Biles did with Gap’s Athleta and plans for a girls performance line.
Colleen Quigley, a 2016 Olympian in the steeplechase who withdrew from this year’s games, said her decision to leave Nike for Lululemon was part money, part support.
“If I’m not going to be with Nike,” Quigley said on The Citius Mag Podcast announcing the move, “I need to do something that’s outside the box and something that is female-focused, something that’s really true to me and my own brand and what I care about. And [that] is more focused on me as a whole person and not just focused on performance, performance, performance.”
Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in U.S. track and field history, had an ugly split with Nike in 2019 when it wanted to pay her less following her pregnancy. She wanted guarantees for her and other women who had children, but Nike declined. Felix signed with Athleta apparel and last month launched Saysh, a brand of footwear for women, by women.
Kara Goucher, an elite distance runner and two-time Olympian, was one of the first to publicly accuse legendary coach Alberto Salazar of skirting anti-doping rules with runners at the Nike Oregon Project. She also spoke out later about the lack of pregnancy protections and pay. Goucher left Nike to join Oiselle and take an equity stake in the company that sells running apparel for women.
“This idea of transitioning to women-owned businesses is about these systems being built for men and male athletes,” Cox said. “Across the ranks of these spaces, these are the people who decide your look [and] how you’re going to market you. In these spaces, you’re already a woman in a male-dominated industry. The people that make the decisions, people that coach, all these things, [are men]. I think there’s something that athletes are finding refreshing [working with women].
“There’s a way that you feel centered in a way you may not feel that way in other aspects of being a professional athlete.”
Fitting women’s sports into the mold of men’s sports doesn’t always work, a crossroads the market is finally facing. And selling women’s sports authentically is big business with room to grow. At Nike, jerseys for the U.S. women's national team and Sabrina Ionescu have sold out after big wins and the company’s women’s division boasted record sales.
Then there’s the purchasing power at play. Women control or influence 85% of consumer spending and more than 60% of all personal wealth in the U.S, studies continue to show. Women are buying products, but imagine how much they’d buy if they were marketed to through a more authentic lens rather than placing women athletes as secondary to the men on the roster.
Women athletes know this and are taking the risks for a payoff.
Have Olympic stars started a trend?
Chiney Ogwumike re-signed with Adidas this spring, her marketability at an all-time peak around her grind as a professional basketball player, ESPN talent and lately an executive producer. The calculated risk Galer said they felt she needed to take in 2017 “to build out the right way with the right people” worked out. Adidas has 23 WNBA stars signed, double its investment of a year ago.
“They continue to utilize athletes in different and unique and creative ways,” Galer said.
Galer, who started her agency 10 years ago, is used to hustling and banging down doors to snag opportunities, but in the past 15 months she’s experienced more positive responses and even brands reaching out to her for a client. Companies such as DoorDash with Ogwumike, an avid user of the app, have launched campaigns centered on women. More brands want in on the game and Cox believes a more niche approach and alignment with personal or political interests is a trend.
“There are all these new ways that athletes are creating voice and I think part of it is also going to be built into this fabric," she said. "There will be a trend in thinking differently."
The larger trend from Ogwumike to Stewart to Biles and everyone in between is that star athletes have more agency over their lives and what sponsors mean to their overall health and well-being. That extends to women and nonbinary athletes, categories often overlooked and largely ignored.
“For me it’s not about, ‘Nike’s bad, these other companies are good.' Or, 'women-owned companies are good, these other ones aren’t,’” Cox said. “I’m interested in how can we improve the lived experience of athletes at every level? How can we make this a more equitable space for all? And so I think this is but one piece.
“This idea that these are the small little shifts and changes that can at least improve their careers, they’re lived experience, their legacy, that’s something that we can all kind of root for.”
Fans can also root for signature shoes, branded apparel for their children and women athletes headlining advertising. The game's best has known it all along, only now it can bring it to them.
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