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Nike wasn't 'giving me really what I needed,' U.S. Olympian says about jumping to LuluLemon

·Assistant Editor
·6 min read
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When her contract with Nike (NKE) was up for renegotiation, American Olympian Colleen Quigley chose to leave the athletic apparel giant for a different type of deal with Lululemon (LULU).

"I've been with Nike since 2015 when I graduated from Florida State University... and joined the team out here in Portland, then had a great five-year run with them,” Quigley said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “But I think when I got to the end of that, I just decided that they weren't giving me really what I needed off of the track and not really seeing me as anything more than just a runner.”

Quigley — a 2016 U.S. Olympic 3000m steeplechaser who withdrew from 2021 Olympic trials — joins a growing number of athletes who were dissatisfied with Nike endorsement deals. Other top runners that parted ways with footwear giant include Mary Cain and Allyson Felix, who respectively spoke out about the company's allegedly toxic culture and lack of maternity protections.

“I started to see myself as more than a runner, and I like to do a lot of different things," Quigley said. "I have different initiatives that I'm working on, really focusing on young athletes and young female athletes." 

Lululemon "values me as that whole person," she added, "which is really what drew me to them."

Colleen Quigley appears mid-stride while running the steeplechase race.
Colleen Quigley, formerly sponsored by Nike, places second in women's steeplechase heat in 9:53.48 to advance during the USATF Championships Jul 26, 2019; Des Moines, IA (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

“You don't have to be on top of the podium to really send a strong message”

Professional athletes in sports such as track and field seek sponsorship deals for compensation since there are few leagues — particularly for women — that pay viable salaries. For college stars like Quigley, signing with a major brand represents the dream of taking one's running career to the next level.

When describing her contract with Nike, Quigley stressed that it was a “transactional relationship.”

“So you run this time, you qualify for this team, you place top three, and you get paid this amount, and if you don't perform and you don't make the team and you don't get a medal, then you don't get paid,” she said. “All of the traditional brands really just see you as a results machine and what you can perform, and what you can give them on the track is really the only thing that they value.”

Steeplechaser Colleen Quigley poses with an American flag.
U.S. athlete Colleen Quigley poses with a flag after finishing first in Women's 3000 metres steeplechase during the ISTAF 2018 athletics meeting at Olympiastadion on September 2, 2018, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Nike estimated that it will spend $1.33 billion in endorsement contracts in fiscal year 2021, according to company filings. That figure varies based on how well athletes perform and doesn't include the cost of athletic gear provided to endorsers.

Despite the massive marketing machine, top women athletes are increasingly looking for sponsorships that go beyond rewarding athletic accomplishments.

In 2019, Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix departed from Nike after she said she felt pressure from the company to return quickly after her pregnancy and accept a significant pay cut.

“If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward,” she wrote in an op-ed at the time. “It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men.” (Nike updated its maternity policy to guarantee pay for pregnant athletes after Felix, as well as runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, went public with their pregnancy stories.)

Allyson Felix smiles while holding an American flag on a track after winning a bronze medal.
U.S. Olympian Allyson Felix smiles after taking the bronze in the final of women's 400-meters at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Felix, after partnering with Athleta and starting her own footwear company, earned her record-high 11th track and field medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

“It's just amazing to watch her go through that whole struggle, and really believe in herself, and know that she could do that — at least I think she knew that she could do that — and come out and say 'I can be a mom, I can go through this and still be an athlete and do my job,” Quigley said of Felix. “And I think she knows she'll have an impact far after she's done running and racing as well because she stood up for herself in that way.”

Quigley also pointed to Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who left Nike earlier this year for GAP Inc. (GPS)'s women-focused activewear brand Athleta and pulled out of Olympic competition in Tokyo to prioritize her mental health.

“You don't have to be on top of the podium to really send a strong message,” Quigley said.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Simone Biles of Team United States reacts before the Women's Balance Beam Final at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)
Simone Biles of Team USA reacts before the Women's Balance Beam Final at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 03, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

Quigley found Lululemon when the company approached her in February after she raced in a tank top that featured the nonprofit Achieving My Purpose.

“They realize the impact that I have on social media or the work that I do with young athletes all over the country, whether that's virtually during a global pandemic or whether that's putting on in-person camps with high school athletes, or college, or even grade school athletes,” Quigley said. “They really see all of those things.”

Social media and the rise of influencer marketing have also opened up channels for athletes to take more ownership of their brands and engage with fans. Quigley regularly presents "Fast Braid Friday,” where she speaks about confidence and overcoming challenges while braiding her hair on Instagram. 

Quigley also noted the new policy that is upending athletic sponsorships: The NCAA now allows collegiate athletes to benefit from their name, image, and likeness.

“College athletes now are so savvy, and they really do know how to market themselves,” Quigley said. “They know how to share their journey and share with their followers just like the pros do. And actually, to be honest, they do it a lot better than some professional athletes do — sharing the ins and outs of their training and ups and downs of what they're going through.”

“And that's really what the fans want to see,” she continued. “That's what they tune in for. I think it's awesome. It gives more power to the athletes and lets them really tell their own story and be in charge of their life and in charge of their future.”

Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance and a UX writer for Yahoo products.

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