Just after Nike's Kobe Bryant partnership came to an end, the retailer is facing a second blow to its athlete roster this week as decorated gymnast Simone Biles is striking up a partnership with Gap-owned Athleta after being a Nike athlete since 2015. Athleta describes the partnership as long-term and wide-reaching in a company press release, with the brand calling itself her "exclusive active and athleisure apparel partner."
Biles will create signature products with Athleta, including her own activewear line, and work on capsule collections for Athleta Girl. The partnership is particularly focused on Athleta Girl, and Biles will engage with young women and girls in Athleta's community through programming designed to support and uplift those communities, the brand said.
It's the second time that Athleta has picked up a Nike athlete for its own roster. Allyson Felix, who spoke out against Nike for its treatment of pregnant athletes, joined Athleta in 2019 as its first-ever sponsored athlete.
On Athleta's journey to reimagine "the traditional athletic sponsorship," the brand has so far signed two top Olympic athletes previously sponsored by Nike.
Felix's decision to join Athleta in 2019 made waves, as it came after she and several other female athletes had criticized Nike's treatment of pregnant athletes. At the time, Athleta touted its support of Felix's "holistic life," rather than simply her status as an athlete, and that language is mirrored in the brand's signing of Biles.
"Athleta has successfully supported Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in U.S. track and field history, in her advocacy efforts and is uniquely positioned to celebrate Biles and Felix as voices for change and empowering the next generation," the company said.
Nike's relationship with women, both employees and athletes, has been patchy over the past few years. In addition to the accusations by Felix and others over how it treats pregnant athletes, the brand has also seen complaints over the treatment of women at its corporate offices. A class action suit in 2018 alleged that the retailer paid women less than men and gave them fewer opportunities for advancement, and included detailed instances of verbal and physical harassment of women within the company. Several executives of the company stepped down months earlier when workplace culture issues first surfaced.
Athleta, for its part, has built its entire brand around supporting women, to the point of launching its men's brand under a different name to remain squarely focused on women. (Hill City has since been shuttered by Gap Inc.)
"Simone believes in championing the next generation of female athletes as much as we do, and we are confident this partnership will continue to build community with our customers and enrich our brand," Mary Beth Laughton, president and CEO of Athleta, said in a statement.
Biles echoed those sentiments, saying she is grateful for the chance to inspire women and girls.
"The opportunity to encourage young girls to reach their full potential and be a force for change is incredibly powerful," Biles said.
In a statement to Retail Dive, Nike said the company wished Simone the best in her future. "We've always taken great pride in our leadership in supporting women in sport at all levels for close to 50 years as individual athletes, through their universities, national teams or their competitive leagues," the retailer said. "We will continue to champion and celebrate all athletes."
The retailer's deal with Kobe Bryant's estate came to an end earlier this week.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Nike.