Athleta on Wednesday announced its first-ever sponsored athlete in Allyson Felix, one of several female athletes who spoke out against rival Nike for its treatment of pregnant athletes. The partnership was announced through a published letter to Felix in The New York Times, according to details emailed to Retail Dive.
In joining forces with Felix, the retailer's purpose is to "empower women and girls through sports," and Felix will play a "key role" in Athleta's 2020 "Power of She" campaign.
Felix will also help develop "high performance run and train products, including plans for multiple product collaborations," the company said.
Athleta made a bold statement with its first-ever sponsored athlete, describing Felix as "an athlete, mother and activist, in support of a female athlete's holistic life."
Aside from aligning with a strong brand message around female athletes and all their battles on and off the field, the move is also a direct shot at Nike, which was criticized by Felix and others for not giving pregnant athletes adequate protection.
Nike's relationship with women over the past few years has been inspiring at best and problematic at worst. The retailer won big by sponsoring the U.S. Women's National Team during the 2019 FIFA World Cup and released a number of rousing advertisements about the team's accomplishments and supporting their fight for equality.
At the same time, the brand has battled through not only accusations over how it treats pregnant athletes, but also how women at its corporate offices are treated. A class action suit made waves last year for calling out the retailer on allegations of paying women less than men and giving them fewer opportunities for advancement, and included detailed instances of verbal and physical harassment of women within the company.
Athleta's decision to side with a female athlete who has fallen out with a rival in the space sends a strong message to consumers about Athleta's brand purpose, and could also remind consumers of Nike's rough patches with the demographic.
"In talking with Athleta, it quickly became clear — this was the right fit," Felix said in a statement. "It was important for me to find a partner that championed my values. I am particularly moved by the community of women and girls Athleta is empowering through sport. I feel powerful when I step on the track in Athleta, representing this community."
Athleta Chief Marketing Officer Sheila Shekar Pollak also noted Felix's activism as a reason for their partnership, saying she is "giving women and girls the confidence to raise their voices."
The partnership is also featured on Athleta's website, where an open letter to Felix is displayed alongside images of her, both on the track and off. It reads almost as a direct response to Felix's struggles with Nike.
"As women and athletes, we experience the joys and challenges that come from being both," the letter, which is signed "Team Athleta," reads. "It's why we promise to support you — as an athlete, a mother, an activist — as you continue to break records, break barriers and break the silence."