By Aron Solomon
Allyson Felix arrived in Tokyo, a member of the United States Olympic Team, and spent her time there absolutely crushing it. While ending her fifth Olympic appearance as the most decorated track athlete in Olympic history should be no surprise to those who follow the sport, things looked significantly less red white and blue in 2019 for this amazing Olympic champion.
Two years ago, coming off a remarkably complicated pregnancy that nearly killed her and her baby, Felix approached her main sponsor, Nike, to renegotiate her contract. As is often the case with athletic endorsements, Felix’s compensation was tied to her performance. Rather than be supportive and understanding, as Nike absolutely was this summer with tennis star Naomi Osaka, they cut Felix’s compensation by 70%.
Lauren Scardella, a New Jersey lawyer, argues that brands such as Nike aren’t always free to do whatever they want:
“When a brand drops an athlete for reasons that violate either the contract or public policy, the athlete may have a claim. Far too often we all hear of cases where brands drop an endorser for a stated reason that is obviously a fiction. It then becomes that job of lawyers and the courts to separate words from actions”
“I was told to know my place. That runners should just run, that it’s just business,” Felix said. While this “stay in your lane” corporate meme has decidedly not played well with athletes and entertainers over the past few years, it is an increasingly common refrain where the disruptive capacity of these influencers crashes headlong into the brand’s status quo.
So what did Allyson Felix ultimately decide to do?
Launch her own shoe company, of course.
In June, Felix announced that she was launching her own brand, Saysh, along with an online membership community, the Saysh Collective.
In announcing her launch, Felix stated:
“All of my experiences of becoming a mom and of raising a daughter helped show me my true competitor: inequality,” Felix said in a statement. “The launch of Saysh is another step towards greater equity for each of us, and when you see me run, know that I’m running towards family, towards motherhood.”
Brands inside and outside the world of sports should see this as a cautionary tale. The future of brands is far more micro than macro. People want to shop with brands, to own products, that they feel represent who they are and their values.
While it will obviously take time, a great time, and some luck for Saysh to make any measurable dent in Nike’s market share (they earned $12.3B in the final quarter of the most recent fiscal year), her personal story and her brand’s origin story are going to resonate with a lot of people.
And to be honest, this is a perfect shoe for our times.
The Saysh One is right in Nike’s lane. Like Nike’s most popular models, it’s part streetwear, part athletic shoe and, as seen in the image above from the Saysh site, it looks great with anything from casual to business wear. Two of the designers of the Saysh One were Nike designers, which would be a fitting chef’s kiss if this shoe actually does make it big.
Allyson Felix has done remarkably well launching Saysh and accomplishing truly amazing feats in Tokyo and throughout her entire career. Her story should be yet another cautionary tale for brands insistent that old ways of doing business are going to carry forward into the future. The smartest and most agile brands are going to have to understand that the lanes they have wanted their endorsers to stay in are now permanently blurred, and that the way forward is softer and more creative.