Major shake-ups are happening at Nike as Simone Biles and Kobe Bryant’s estate chose to sever ties with the fame athletic wear company this month. The two departures have some wondering if there is something amiss at Nike.
In early April, social media was ablaze after it was announced Kobe Bryant’s estate chose not to renew his contract with the Oregon-based company. Bryant, who tragically passed away last year, had a five-year deal with Nike that expired on April 13. During his time with Nike, Bryant released numerous shoes that are widely popular and highly sought after.
The names Nike and Kobe Bryant have been synonymous with one another ever since the 18-time All-Star basketball player left Adidas in the early 2000s. After his untimely passing in 2020, his already hard-to-get merchandise became harder to get, which is something Bryant’s wife Vanessa, wanted to fix.
“My hope will always be to allow Kobe’s fans to get and wear his products,” Vanessa Bryant wrote in a post on Instagram. “I will continue to fight for that. Kobe’s products sell out in seconds. That says everything. I was hoping to forge a lifelong partnership with Nike that reflects my husband’s legacy. We will always do everything we can to honor Kobe and [daughter] Gigi’s legacies. That will never change.”
It seems Vanessa Bryant wanted to make Kobe’s products more accessible to fans, but Nike wanted to keep the allure of exclusivity around the famed merchandise. This gamble may have caused them to lose a big name on their elite roster. It’s unclear what’s next for Kobe Bryant’s legacy but for Nike, the losses keep rolling in.
A week after Bryant’s estate departure announcement came, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles also announced she was leaving Nike. Biles, who is currently the most decorated gymnast, is now partnered with Athleta, a smaller branded owner by historic retailer Gap.
Biles’ move to Athleta is a surprising one because it’s not every day a star of her stature willingly chooses to leave a brand as big as Nike for a much smaller and less known brand like Gap’s Athleta. While discussing her new partnership with Athleta, Biles had nothing negative to say about her relationship with Nike, which left many to wonder if there’s something bigger behind her move.
“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 said. “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.”
While Biles’ decision to leave Nike might be surprising for some, those who have followed Biles’ career closely probably aren’t all that surprised. For some time now, it’s felt as though Nike just didn’t know how to incorporate Biles into their large portfolio of athletes.
In March, Nike released an ad during the NCAA tournament to highlight Black women in athletics. The ad has appearances from Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and a host of other black women. Biles was noticeably nowhere to be found in the ad.
It could be argued a scheduling conflict or prior engagement kept Biles from participating in the commercial but a lot can be said about Nike’s choice to exclude Biles from an ad celebrating Black female excellence in sports. When you have someone of Biles’ caliber at your disposal, you go out of your way to celebrate them. It looks like Nike dropped the ball which could have contributed to her departure.
While Biles’ decision to leave Nike for Athleta is a big one, she is not the first star athlete to move on. In 2019, Olympic track and field star Allyson Felix made waves when she penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing her decision to leave Nike. Unlike Biles, Felix told the world exactly why she left the famed apparel company.
“If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward. It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men,” Felix wrote.
At the time of her pregnancy, Felix was a six-time Olympic gold medal winner and an 11- time world champion. She was also in the middle of negotiating her contract renewal. She says she felt very pressured to return to her athletic form before she even had her child.
After birthing her child through an emergency caesarean procedure (C-section), Felix says negotiations went south. Despite all her accolades, Nike wanted to pay her 70 percent less than her previous contract, according to Felix. While the amount of money Nike offered her disappointed Felix, she went ahead with negotiations anyway, asking the Just Do It company to promise she would not be penalized if she did not perform at the same standard while bouncing back from childbirth.
Nike refused and Felix moved on to greener pastures.
When it comes to endorsements and brand deals athletes need to choose a company that ultimately respects this as a human first and brand name second. While we don’t know what happened between Nike and Biles, it’s clear through Felix and Bryant, Nike has some work to do on that front. Yes, Nike is a big brand and probably will be just fine without Bryant, Biles, and Felix but what message does that send for future athletes?
Nike has to realize without its athletes it’s not the brand fans have come to love. If Nike knew better, it would do better.