Apparel brands are putting a new spin on the term “sportswear” by tapping a new generation of athletes to serve as their brand ambassadors.
“There has been a culture shift with a spotlight on what athletes are wearing,” said Suzy Biszantz, group president at Centric Brands, which owns denim labels like Joe’s Jeans, Hudson and Favorite Daughter. “Athletes are more involved in fashion than ever before. They’re putting more effort into it and their looks are being covered.”
In January, Hudson kicked off its 20th anniversary celebrations with a partnership with NBA Miami Heat’s Tyler Herro. The point guard has a penchant for colorful fashion, which he often documents and shares with his more than 2.3 million followers on Instagram. The brand signed a two-year ambassadorship with the 22-year-old athlete, which includes a denim collaboration and a marketing campaign this spring.
“There is immense value for brands to tap into athlete sponsorship at the professional and elite level,” said Jasmine Chou, former sponsored Kona Ironman triathlete and author of “#Sponsored: How Athletes and Brands Can Leverage Each other to Create Value.” “Ambassadors have an audience that the brands may want to tap into, and they can keep a pulse on the brand’s targeted consumer trends and sentiments.”
The connection between sports and fashion runs deep, with many athletes now known for their fashion sense as much as their athleticism. At the beginning of 2022, seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady launched his own line, Brady Brand, consisting of “technical apparel for the performance-minded.” Tennis great Serena Williams made a cameo appearance during the Off-White Fall 2022 show in which she walked the runway to pay tribute to the late Virgil Abloh. Collaborations between Gucci and the MLB’s New York Yankees in 2018 and Tiffany and Wilson basketballs earlier this year further underscore the popular crossover. And with college athletes now eligible for brand sponsorship, the opportunities to merge fashion and sports continue to expand.
Not all sports offer brands the same level of clout. Recent data from research firm Nielsen Sports names basketball the favorite sport among Gen Z viewers in the U.S. On a global level, the sport takes second place to soccer. Maybe not so coincidentally, for years, the NBA has held its own version of a fashion show before every game, with players preparing game-day outfits for their “tunnel walk” into the arena, presenting styles from Gucci, Valentino and more. Los Angeles Lakers’ Russell Westbrook, Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker have all made lasting impressions for their tunnel looks.
For millennials in the U.S., football takes the top spot, followed by basketball, baseball and soccer.
Still, soccer players have the highest percentage of followers among Gen Z globally. Mixed martial arts athletes are also becoming more popular among younger generations who are likely attracted to the sport’s fast-paced, easy-to-consume format and high-intensity matches.
Brands that choose ambassadors strategically can expect to see the benefits. Nielsen reported that 16-29-year-olds are 27 percent more likely than consumers age 40 and over to consider a brand based on its sponsorship activities.
According to Mark Foxton, Levi’s head of global partnerships and collaborations, now is the time for brands to harness the power of athletes as brand ambassadors. “Athletes allow us to engage with a different customer, inclusive of not only sports fans but fashion as well,” he said. “Now more than ever, athletes are amplifying their individuality and self-expression through their fashion.”
Levi’s featured a number of athletes in its 501 Originals campaign from last May, which included NBA point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, tennis champion Naomi Osaka and English soccer star Marcus Rashford.
In August, the brand launched an upcycled denim collection with Osaka. Working closely with the Levi’s design team, Osaka created four distinct pieces with silhouettes and design details that capture her sporty yet feminine style as well as her Japanese heritage. A second collection will launch this fall.
“Consumers are looking for brands that represent their core values, and brand partners are an extension of those values,” Foxton said. “By working with athletes as ambassadors, we can tell a story in a much more authentic and real way, one that consumers can connect with.”
Wrangler also has a penchant for selecting athletes as brand ambassadors, as demonstrated by the recent rodeo-focused campaign underscoring its position in Western heritage. To celebrate Women’s History Month, the 100-year-old brand debuted a video centered on female rodeo athletes, including barrel racer Nellie Miller and breakaway roping champion Madison Outhier. The video followed the story of a young trick rider practicing her craft at Three River, California’s Riata Ranch dedicated to training girls on the sport. To support the organization, Wrangler donated performance pieces to the nonprofit to help them “embrace the cowgirl spirit.”
A tailored approach
Working with athletes gives denim brands the opportunity to showcase their size-inclusive styles. With the body positivity movement of recent years and innovations in stretch technology circling the denim industry, denim brands are especially equipped with the tools needed to appeal to different body types.
Herro’s capsule collection with Hudson features three new fits in a total of seven washes with some available in longer inseams targeted toward athletes and taller people. Biszantz said Hudson plans to continue to add denim options in a 36-inch inseam to serve to athletic figures. In the past, sister brand Joe’s Jeans worked with former Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman to create a jean for a muscular built that was looser in the thighs and tapered at the bottom for a modern fit.
Popular retailers like Banana Republic, Bonobos and Old Navy offer athletic fits, which are often classified by their extra inches around the thighs to accommodate the larger leg muscles typical of athletes. The term is typically used for men’s lines.
While household names are finding ways to fit athletic builds, custom denim brands continue to be the brands of choice for athletes with specific fit needs.
“The vast majority of people consistently struggle with fit with off-the-rack denim,” said Ray Li, co-founder and CEO of custom denim brand Sene. “With athletes, there tends to be a waist gap, and their quads are bigger, which may not fit into denim. They then typically have to size up and get it tailored or wear jeans with 40 percent stretch material that verges on jeggings, but more often than not, many just wear athleisure because of the difficulty of finding jeans that fit.”
Sene partnered with Peloton instructor Emma Lovewell in November partly to bring attention to the brand’s custom offerings and ease the sense of frustration felt among the fitness-focused group. It offered four women’s jeans silhouettes, women’s denim shorts and a pair of men’s slim fit jeans. With 575,000 Instagram followers hyper-focused on all things wellness and fashion, Lovewell was a top choice for the brand.
Similarly, custom denim brand Lasso, which recently rebranded as Neems, tapped U.S. Olympian hammer thrower Dawn Ellerbe to help launch the label last year. Ellerbe appeared in the brand’s lifestyle images, ads and product photography.
Neems co-founder Dani Rodriguez-Firmani said Ellerbe, who is 6’1, was chosen to represent the brand for her “fun and bubbly personality” as well as her height and athletic build.
“We have certainly worked with many athletes to make them perfectly-fitting custom-made jeans, ranging from cyclists to powerlifters to volleyball players and beyond,” she said. “Featuring athletes has definitely proven successful for our brand, especially as one that makes it a point to cater to all different body types.”