Today, fitness apparel brand Athleta announced that they are the newest sponsor of Olympian sprinter Allyson Felix. Felix has been without a sponsor since her contract with Nike ended in December 2017; she even ran in the recent USATF Outdoor Championships unattached (although she told SELF she was actually wearing Athleta’s Lightning Short and Lightning Crop in its SuperSonic compression fabric while she competed). Felix is Athleta’s first sponsored athlete.
Felix had been in negotiations with Nike until recently, including in May, when she wrote a New York Times op-ed and appeared in an accompanying video that implored Nike and the sports-apparel industry at large to pay its female athletes throughout their pregnancies and recovery for childbirth. She was one of several runners, including sprinter Alysia Montaño and marathoner Kara Goucher, who shared their stories of suffering financial consequences because they were pregnant. As a result of the athletes’ advocacy, Nike recently announced that its new contracts for female athletes will include language that will protect their pay during pregnancy. In our July cover story, however, Felix’s agent and brother, Wes Felix, told us that Felix was no longer negotiating with Nike, saying that she had decided to seek a new apparel sponsor and that “she wants to partner with a brand that she believes makes women the focus of their business.” Athleta (a Gap Inc. brand) describes itself as a company that creates apparel designed by women athletes and has several women-focused campaigns and initiatives, including the Power of She and Athleta Girls.
Sheila Shekar Pollak, chief marketing officer of Athleta, noted that Felix’s Times op-ed played a crucial role in why the company wanted to partner with the athlete. “Just a couple of months ago we had been talking about how do we really create deeper, even more holistic and meaningful partnerships with some of these athletes,” Shekar Pollak told SELF. “And that’s serendipitously exactly when Allyson really took her stance—we all read the op-ed and watched her video and we were just so deeply moved by it. As athletes and as moms, it really resonated very personally. And so we immediately picked up the phone and the journey has been really magical ever since then.”
Felix, for her part, expanded on why she chose to partner with Athleta, saying that their new partnership is “redefining what sponsorship looks like.” “Typically the industry norm is: You are an athlete and everything is based on your performance,” Felix told SELF. “It’s really numbers, making world championship teams, making Olympic teams, and everything is tied back into how well your numbers look like and that is how you’re rewarded. This is a completely different approach. As a mother, as an activist, all these different parts of who I am, I’m more than an athlete. And it’s amazing to be supported in that way and to be able to partner and to create things together, to have values aligned and to do more than just perform.”
Her Times op-ed hasn’t been the only way that Felix has used her platform to speak out about things that matter to her. She’s also been calling attention to the black maternal mortality crisis—the United States is the only industrialized nation with a growing maternal mortality rate, and black women are dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes at rates three to four times higher than their white counterparts. Felix became passionate about the issue in the wake of her own life-threatening pregnancy complications, when she had an emergency C-section due to severe preeclampsia at 32 weeks pregnant. In May, she testified in front of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee for a panel exploring racial disparities within maternal health care, and just this week SELF profiled Felix as our July cover star for our Black Maternal Mortality Issue, part of an ongoing series focusing on the health crisis.
Felix also noted that her multiyear Athleta contract allows for maternity protection, since she is paid 100 percent throughout her contract “no matter what I decide to do” regarding pregnancy. “That’s amazing and I hope that others will follow suit,” Felix said.
As part of the partnership, Felix will appear in marketing campaigns and will be involved in apparel design and creation, both as an elite athlete who tests and provides feedback on technical gear and as the cocreator of a cobranded capsule collection. “We’re really excited to partner with Allyson on our high-performance run and train product and just being able to get her expertise and insights on what she really needs to feel her best, perform her best, look her best,” said Shekar Pollak.
Felix is still working out the details of her footwear sponsor, but she told SELF that she had no updates to share on that front. In the meantime she’s focusing on her new Athleta partnership, mulling over a ninth world championship appearance in Doha, Qatar, in September (she placed sixth in the 400 meters at the USATF national championships, qualifying her for a spot on the 4 x 400 meter relay team) as well as the messages she wants to share as an athlete and activist. “Thinking about my legacy and what I want to leave behind, this is really the work that I want to do,” she said. “I can have some impact on the sport or on the issues that women are facing. This partnership is really crucial to that.”