When medal-winning athletes take their place on the podium at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, most will be sporting two logos: one for their country, and another for their apparel sponsor. The billion-dollar question facing Nike (Team USA), Adidas (UK), Asics (Australia, Japan), Telfar (Liberia) and the rest: how many people will see it?

Normally, an Olympic partnership is one of the most coveted deals in sports marketing. Fashion labels clamour to get their branding in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators, plus hundreds of millions more watching at home.

But there won’t be any fans inside the official venues in Tokyo, which is struggling to contain Covid-19 infections that delayed the games by a year. As the July 23 opening ceremony approaches, the television audience is also in doubt — according to Nielsen, sporting events, including professional basketball, football and baseball games in the US, all saw their viewership decline when their seasons restarted in the second half of 2020. Last year’s Major League Baseball World Series was the lowest-rated in history, while the NBA Finals saw a 51 percent decline.

Fashion has also changed since 2016, and brands see an Olympics opportunity beyond adopting the national colours. There’s been a global reckoning over diversity in the aftermath of the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd last year. The power of legacy labels has also been threatened by the rise of new competitors, some of which will make an appearance at the Tokyo games.

Alongside the usual corporate sponsors — Nike for the competition, Ralph Lauren for the opening ceremonies — Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear label Skims has been added to the list of official Team USA sponsors, creating pyjamas and loungewear for the athletes. Athleta poached gymnast Simone Biles and track star Allyson Felix from Nike’s roster of Olympians, with Biles crediting the Athleta’s commitment “to diversity and inclusion” as a propelling reason for the switch. Telfar Clemens, whose brand is sponsoring and outfitting the Liberian team, is using this high-profile stage to kickstart a venture into activewear.

“We’re seeing a shifting definition of what Americana means with the kind of brands that are getting involved with the Olympics today,” said Becki Zeuner, strategist at Siegel+Gale. “There’s brands that are less associated with traditional, red white and blue Americana but also disruptor, direct-to-consumer brands and celebrity brands, making this new statement in terms of what Americana means.”

Betting on Broadcast

The pandemic has forced brands to rely more than usual on marketing to consumers through their televisions. Skims, for example, had to scrap plans for an on-the-ground welcome activation, said chief executive Jens Grede.

But for most brands, the event’s worldwide audience has always been more important than making an impression with fans in the stands.

“Fans in and out of the stadium doesn’t really play into our calculus,” said Girisha Chandraraj, chief executive of GK Elite, which makes the leotards worn by Team USA’s gymnasts and is an official sponsor of the team for the first time. “Gymnastics is a for-TV event. It’s the way it presents on camera that impacts our designs.”

GK Elite takes its cues from fashion trends and what’s on the runway, and consults with brands like Swarovski, who supplies the company with crystals to embellish the leotards — a detail added particularly because of the way it appears on camera.

“It’s a leotard, but it’s a lot like a red carpet dress,” said Chandraraj. “It really reflects the eminence and prominence of the stage.”

That eminence is what drives brand interest in many of these partnerships, giving them “visibility and linking them to something that is quite noble,” said Woody Thompson, executive vice president of marketing at sports marketing agency Octagon.

But more than just the prestige, an Olympic apparel sponsorship is an opportunity for a brand to be an ambassador for their home country and send a message, said Zeuner.

“The ability to work with athletes that are on this global stage representing your country helps bring our clothes to life in a very exciting way, on real people who are part of history,” said David Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s chief innovation officer. “We’re a part of this story of what America is in front of billions of people.”

“We’re a part of this story of what America is in front of billions of people.”

A Wider Playing Field

Brands like Ralph Lauren and Nike get a brief from Team USA that includes a directive about what sort of “mood and attitude” the team wants the ensembles to convey, said Lauren. Sometimes, that’s full-on red, white and blue — which he said was this year’s directive. Other times, it’s about formalwear, like the suit and tie outfits from the Beijing games in 2008.

It’s also a testing ground for new products. This year, American flagbearers will wear a ‘cooling jacket,’ which includes a personal air conditioning system. Nike is highlighting some of its most sustainable products yet, including a jacket made from recycled polyester.

“We’ll take the learnings, the craftsmanship, the details from how to dress these athletes and it will inform other other kinds of products we do,” said Lauren.

He added the brand hasn’t made any significant changes to its plans, besides, of course, the lack of in-person events. Over a year ahead of the games, the official sponsors get a brief from Team USA that includes a directive about what sort of “mood and attitude” the team wants the ensembles to convey, said Lauren. Those instructions — for sporty, red, white and blue garments — didn’t change after the pandemic set in. Nike didn’t change its plans either, but rather, just added to them, with the introduction of its Nike Glide FlyEase, a hands-free entry shoe, to its Olympic product lineup.

For smaller brands — a group that includes Telfar, Skims and Athleta, which though owned by Gap Inc. has revenue only one-tenth Nike’s — the Olympics are an opportunity to push name recognition further. Grede said that teaming up with Team USA aligned with Skims’ goal of expanding globally. Clemens told the New York Times he views the Olympics as a runway show, as well as a blueprint for manufacturing the brand’s own activewear line.

Skims’ partnership with Team USA came about only after the pandemic delayed the games. The intimates and loungewear brand is creating sleepwear for the athletes, a reflection of where consumer heads are at — after all, people spent most of the last year in sweatpants.

It’s also a reflection of shifting priorities on the part of Team USA, which reached out to Skims about teaming up, Gerde said.

Even if the Olympics see a decline in viewership, participating brands are likely to get a boost. Skims’ Olympic collection sold out within 48 hours, and for a small, specialised brand like GK Elite, having their logo appear on the Olympic mats hands the brand recognition outside the gymnastics community.

“If the Olympics reached a quarter of the people that it actually does, we’d still do it, because there is a symbolism and a power in dressing America’s best athletes,” said Lauren. “The symbolism and the historical value of being connected to something that’s this important is just unique.”

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