Baseball caps sit on display for sale at a Gap Inc store in New York, USA, on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. (Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg)

Gap’s sports push to enter Olympics spotlight with Biles, Felix

Baseball caps sit on display for sale at a Gap Inc store in New York, USA, on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. (Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg)

Gap Inc has long been known for khaki pants and hoodies, but the company hopes the Olympics will start to change that image.

Athleta, Gap’s fast-growing athletic-wear brand, is poised to get worldwide exposure after signing endorsement deals recently with gymnast Simone Biles and track star Allyson Felix, two of the biggest names competing for the United States in Tokyo. This marks the first Olympics in which the San Francisco-based retailer has backed competitors at the games.

The athletes won’t be wearing Athleta — they’ll be adorned in official Team USA uniforms — but the event will give the Gap brand a foothold in the sports world unlike any it has had before. To capitalise on the moment, it’s amping up marketing efforts with an ad in the New York Times, an Instagram campaign and a child care fund for mothers competing in the global games.

The stakes are high for Gap, which has made Biles and Felix faces of a brand it’s counting on to grow sales long-term. While Athleta has never been the biggest name in Gap’s line-up, which includes Banana Republic and Old Navy in addition to its namesake brand, the 23-year-old athletic line became the company’s star performer during the pandemic, which drove heavy demand for comfortable clothes.

Linking up with highly-decorated Olympic athletes gives it credibility as a performance brand as well, as Athleta more closely competes with the likes of Lululemon Athletica Inc, Nike Inc, and Adidas AG. Felix, 35, became Athleta’s first partner in 2019 and Biles, 24, joined earlier this year. They both had been under contract with Nike.

In a sign of how important management views the company’s push into sports, Gap Chief Executive Officer Sonia Syngal spoke with Biles after she won her seventh national all-around championship last month. “She did so well,” Syngal said at a conference the following day. “She’s the perfect ambassador for us.”

Soaring popularity

This year, Biles has become the fourth most popular sports figure in the US, behind only Tom Brady, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, according to a recent survey from Morning Consult. Last year, without the Olympics to boost her profile, Biles barely registered on the ranking, just breaking into the top 100. The gymnast has been featured prominently in Olympics advertisements by NBC, which will broadcast the games.

Online searches for Athleta also surged after Gap announced its deal with Biles.

In a FaceTime call Athleta posted to its social media page, Biles and Felix banter about cheering one another on and congratulating each other on their product lines with the brand. In the Times ad that ran this month, Biles and Felix are shown side-by-side. The text below their photos notes that you can be “a mother and a world champion, an athlete and an activist.”

The opening ceremony for the Tokyo games took place last Friday.