This month, superstar gymnast Simone Biles’ switched from Nike to Athleta, and basketball player Wilson Chandler signed with CryptoKickers, an NFT-based fashion brand. (Image: AP)
There was a time when sneakers, beverages and fast food chains were the meat and potatoes of athlete endorsements. They still exist, but some things are changing.
Ethical consciousness, technology and the cool quotient of smaller brands have altered the rules of the game. This month, superstar gymnast Simone Biles’ switched from Nike to Athleta, and basketball player Wilson Chandler signed with CryptoKickers, an NFT-based fashion brand. These are just two new unions which reflect the portfolio of a contemporary sportsperson.
Owned by Gap Inc, Athleta was formed in 1998. Its parent company expects it to earn $2 billion in annual sales by 2023.
But it was Athleta’s strong association with women and other causes that was the clincher for the 24-year-old Biles, one of the several victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the disgraced doctor of the US gymnastics team.
“Athleta is a brand I have admired for how they support and recognise the strength of women and girls. They have a team that is primarily women. They are committed to diversity and inclusion, which was really important for me to see in a partner,” said Biles, the winner of a staggering 30 Olympic and World Championship medals and the most successful US gymnast in history.
The following line from Biles captures what a socially aware, present-day athlete looks for in a brand, apart from quality and the commercial aspect.
“It was super important for me to align with a partner who supports me not just as a gymnast or an athlete but for the individual that I am and the change that I want to create,” she said.
On the other hand, Wilson Chandler’s endorsement was a milestone because it waded into the most modern version of wealth and investments – NFTs.
"As soon as I discovered CryptoKickers, it was a no-brainer to collaborate with them," the veteran of 13 NBA seasons said. "I've been in the crypto space for some time and recently became obsessed with NFTs. I think these guys are positioned to build a Nike-sized fashion business for virtual worlds."
In the last few years, football stars such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Eden Hazard signed with Blockchain companies. Messi was attached to Sirin Labs, currently in a rough spot. Aguero and Hazard have been associated with All Sports Chain.
Tennis player and youth icon Naomi Osaka’s tie-up earlier this year with Workday, which offers unified finance, human resources and student/faculty lifecycle management cloud applications for organisations, was another example of an athlete-technology combine. And like Athleta, Workday swears by values.
It says on its website, “Our core values give us a framework for leadership and daily decisions, and help us enjoy our time at work. Sounds so simple, but too often companies get caught up in politics, ivory-tower attitudes, and market mania instead of focusing on the things that probably made them successful in the first place.”
Osaka said, “We have shared values, and together, we will continue to strive to do the right thing.”
Gaming, fantasy sports and headphone deals are also a trend in locker rooms around the world. The electronics brand Boat has several Indian cricketers on its roster, such as Jasprit Bumrah, Shreyas Iyer and Hardik Pandya. Likewise with Dream XI. And badminton champ PV Sindhu endorses JBL earphones.
Music has been used by athletes to relax or pump themselves up for decades. Iyer put it into perspective when he signed with Boat.
“Music helps me balance my thoughts, unnerve my anxiety at times before a crucial game or help me relax,” he said.
Sindhu said she likes to carry her music everywhere, “From practice matches to intense workout sessions.”
Just as athletes are open towards non mainstream brands, manufacturers too are open to endorsers who may not be mainstream athletes, yet epitomise fitness and healthy living. For example, yoga, meditation and dance instructors are among the global ambassadors of high-end athleisure brand Lululemon.
On its website, the company says, “We team up with renowned athletes, yogis, trainers, musicians and creators who are using their passion for sweat to change the world.”
There is one anomaly in the evolving nature of sports endorsements. For some reason, many athletes continue to peddle fast food. Cristiano Ronaldo will stop gelling his hair but will not go anywhere near deep fried meat. And yet, he endorses KFC. What next, Colonel Sanders in a Juventus kit?