For Hanako Maeda, founder and creative director of the luxury apparel brand Adeam, it was the sense of an increasing relevance of sport in the lives of the average person that propelled her to team up with tennis player Naomi Osaka for a design collaboration in 2020. In a crowded industry, she wanted to highlight the brand in a relevant way, and the then fast-approaching Tokyo Olympics provided opportune timing.
“People are looking for something that feels very honest and feels very true to themselves,” said Maeda. “Athletes feel more like a closer figure that somebody can aspire to in terms of fashion.”
In recent weeks, Osaka’s honesty has been pushed to the forefront. Her withdrawal from the French Open made waves, both in the sports industry and beyond, prompting a global conversation about mental health and setting boundaries.
She was already one of the most ubiquitous female athletes of the moment, whose influence has extended to the fashion industry through collaborations with brands like Adeam and Frankie’s Bikinis. She’s also the first professional tennis player to work with Levi’s, the first professional athlete to be a global brand ambassador for Louis Vuitton and a co-chair of this year’s Met Gala.
Osaka’s status as an influencer in fashion represents a growing model for female athletes in a realm that, outside of activewear, has long overlooked the commercial potential of women’s sports. Long in the shadow of men’s athletics, with games and matches hard to access and sponsorship deals reserved for a select few at the top, women’s sports are now seeing a boom. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup generated record viewership, drawing a 22 percent larger audience than the men’s final the prior year among US viewers.
As interest in female athletes is growing, so is the athletes’ influence. After their World Cup win, the US Women’s National Team lodged a lawsuit against US Soccer over pay discrepancies with its male counterparts. The team’s fight landed on the Senate floor on Wednesday, when Senator Joe Manchin introduced a bill that would block federal funding of the 2026 World Cup unless the federation agrees to equal pay. With the Olympics on the horizon, all eyes are on names like Simone Biles — who just left Nike in favour of the Gap-owned, women-led sportswear brand Athleta, citing better alignment with the brand’s values of diversity and inclusion.
Athletes are participating in fashion more than ever, appearing on fashion week runways, sitting on best-dressed lists and starring in magazine covers and luxury ads (Megan Rapinoe fronted Loewe’s Fall/Winter 2020, for example). But the opportunity has just begun: working with female athletes — whether through sponsorships, collaborations, digital campaigns, or even licensing physical spaces — represents a unique opportunity for fashion brands looking to build brand recognition, increase exposure and reach a new, hyper-engaged audience of fans and followers. (Case in point: in a recently-published report, Deloitte predicted women’s sports revenues will grow to be worth well over a billion dollars in the years ahead.)
“The interest in those individuals as personalities is expanding from the quite small women’s sport community to the general public realm,” said Izzy Wray, manager in Deloitte’s sports business group and co-author of the report.
Building Recognition, Awareness and Values
Brands partner with prominent female athletes not just for their athletic prowess, but because of their values. Due to underinvestment, female athletes often have to be more than just athletes, but also activists. Female athletes have also gained a reputation for cultivating more direct relationships with fans via social media and combating injustice.
To harness that power, brands must allow athletes to retain that authentic voice in a partnership. Glossier, for example, teamed up with WNBA stars including Sue Bird, Seimone Augustus and Kalani Brown for its latest campaign to introduce new products in its Body Hero line. The brand said it has found partnerships with athletes, which have mostly highlighted their personal stories, to be particularly beneficial in fostering an inclusive approach to beauty.
For the campaign, the players shot videos of themselves reflecting on beauty standards and celebrating how they defied them while dancing in their bedrooms and applying products in the bathroom, an approach meant to “tell a story that demonstrated the values of our brand,” said Glossier’s chief marketing officer Ali Weiss.
The Glossier partnership was particularly successful — the brand did not share specific campaign results, but it said in 2020, its body category sales tripled year-over-year — because it selected a partnership and athletes that fit into its ecosystem. The focus on personal narrative resonated with both the Glossier and WNBA communities, said Weiss.
“What you really want now is resonance and engagement. If I can find the right athlete, or the right spokesperson who is speaking to the 30,000 people that I want to reach, that’s more valuable than just scatter shots,” said Joe Favorito, sports marketing and strategic communications consultant.
Favorito said brands are better off evaluating athletes as potential partners in the same way brands approach teaming up with niche fashion influencers like Reese Blustein or Tamu McPherson, who, despite having lower numbers of followers, tout higher engagement rates. So, going after, say, a WNBA star with a smaller, but much more passionate and engaged audience than an NBA counterpart with a massive following, might be worth a brand’s time and money.
Though partnerships with female athletes are often commended, the head of women’s team sports at sports marketing and talent management agency Octagon, Susie Piotrkowski, is wary of buying into the “it’s the right thing to do” narrative, because there is value beyond that in engaging in these partnerships. Part of that value is hard to quantify, and she said brands need to think about different metrics of success besides financial results.
She points to the WNBA’s support of Black Lives Matter — in particular, the Atlanta Dream’s protest against its own co-owner, then-senator Kelly Loeffler, who spoke against the movement. Dream players campaigned for her competitor, Raphael Warnock, who went on to win.
“How do you measure that type of movement and impact with a traditional metric?” Piotrkowski said. “Brands that say, ‘We just don’t see the value because the eyeballs aren’t there’ — they will be left behind.”
Besides building brand awareness, partnerships with female athletes offer fashion brands an opportunity to tap into new audiences.
Maeda expected the partnership with Osaka, for example, would help grow Adeam’s two primary markets: the US and Japan, home to the bulk of the Japanese-American Osaka’s fan base. But the partnership ended up leading to an increase in Adeam’s site traffic across the globe, including in Singapore, Australia and parts of Europe. Additionally, the brand — which had previously only been stocked in stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, as well as the closets of serious fashionphiles — gained access to a more mainstream, sports-following crowd.
Another plus of collaborating with an athlete like Osaka is the staying power she brought to the line. According to the brand, the collection’s web traffic and sales numbers have been consistent from launch to now, a whole year later. Perhaps part of that has to do with Osaka’s consistent presence in the news, for her athletic prowess and social provocateuring alike. Following her departure from the French Open, in an email to BoF, Maeda expressed her full support of Osaka’s decision.
Partnering with female athletes can also connect brands with ultra-loyal fan bases. Because women’s sports have historically been harder to access, fans have had to work overtime to find content, creating a passionate fan base. Connecting with engaged audiences is especially relevant to brands as they struggle to motivate buyers emerging from the pandemic.
“Female sports fans are used to adversity,” said Piotrkowski. “They work really, really hard to support the teams and athletes they care about … their fans sought them out, their fans have been following their journey for a really long time, and their fans are going to support the brands that support them.”