Written By: Toby Lang, Director, Principal Counsel, Bell Media - Sales, Sports and Technology

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The upcoming Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games will be the most audacious example yet of the convergence between sport and fashion. In July 2023, French luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) announced that it had signed on to be a premium partner for Paris 2024 for a reported investment of US $166 million. In its self-described role as “Artisan of All Victories” at the Games, LVMH and its Maisons will dress the French delegation in Berluti, present medals designed by Chaumet, and sponsor the Olympic Torch Relay by Sephora. Europe’s most valuable company will also introduce its first ever LVMH-sponsored Olympic athletes led by French gymnast Mélanie de Jesus dos Santos as Dior’s latest brand ambassador. As stylishly summarized in The Zoe Report, in Paris this summer, “The pinnacle of fashion and the pinnacle of sports will be in business together on an unprecedented stage.”

The high-powered athlete-fashion brand partnership of today is the result of a decades-long series of marketing shifts. Nike set the ball rolling with Michael Jordan’s first sneaker contract, a five-year, $2.5 million deal in 1984, and the release of the Air Jordan 1 the following year. The debut of the world’s most iconic sneaker signaled an extraordinary swing in Nike’s marketing focus – from the sport to the individual. It deliberately rooted the shoe’s brand in its rising superstar starting with the iconic “Jumpman” logo – “a silhouette of Michael Jordan mid-air in a balletic leap, [which] encapsulates elegance, excellence, and determination.” Gatorade would follow this up several years later with its superbly aspirational “Be Like Mike” campaign. As explained by Brand Vision, a Toronto-based marketing agency, “The Air Jordan line’s success was not solely based on its cutting-edge technology and design; it was a reflection of Jordan's personality and on-court dominance.”

The rise of social media enabled a second – and more athlete-driven – shift. Players began making themselves the brand through their adept use of the direct-to-consumer pathways provided by Instagram and other social platforms. As explained by Jens Grede (CEO of Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand, Skims), “Previously, an athlete or celebrity was dependent on one of the handful of sports clothing mega-brands to distribute their lines. Not any more. Now they can profit from their own brand equity, rather than lend it to another brand, be it Nike or Dior.”

This prompted a third shift which saw fashion labels buying into the concept of athletes as “brand storytellers” through the compelling personal journeys of the athletes themselves. Understanding the authenticity and intimacy that such content provides, labels moved quickly to capitalize on this surge in player equity by partnering with athletes as their storytellers, representatives, promoters, and social influencers.

Today’s seamless fit between sport and fashion is also the product of a number of common values and characteristics including high cultural influence, an emphasis on self-expression and empowerment, and suitability for social consumption. Together they’ve teamed up as the “power forwards of the game”, according to The New York Times. Both offer “a shared language spoken across the world, communicated in an instant.”

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Angel Reese of the WNBA's Chicago Sky attends The Met Gala. - Source: The Associated Press

It has all made for a remarkable transition of power, the signs of which are virtually everywhere today. Catlin Clark outfitted in an all-Prada ensemble at the recent WNBA Draft marked the first time the luxury fashion house had dressed a WNBA or NBA player for the Draft. Toronto-born NBA player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander walked the runway for Thom Browne at Paris Fashion Week. Italian tennis star Jannik Sinner entered Wimbledon’s Centre Court carrying a one-of-a-kind Gucci duffle bag that was custom designed for the tournament ‒ a first for the athlete, the brand, and the famously conservative event. And, of course, the rise of “tunnel fashion” with professional athletes turning every pre-game arena entry into a marketing opportunity for the “fire fits” in which they arrive and even more so for their personal brands.

Behind each of these moments is a sophisticated understanding of the consumer. “Brands have long embraced the notion that consumers are multidimensional,” explains Gavin Roth, Managing Partner of Gavin Roth + Associates, a leading Canadian sponsorship agency. “Athletes have now joined the party, appealing to broader audiences to drive growth in social currency and attract more partners.”

On the fashion side of the house, labels recognize that these partnerships allow them to draw an association between their brands and the soaring attributes of the high performance athlete – skill, power, passion, and performance under pressure to name a few – while also using athletes’ cultural relevance, reach, and visibility to access new and diverse fan bases. This access in turn produces appreciable returns. ROI is “measured through a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures, and it’s all relative to each brand’s goals for their campaign,” according to Starch Creative CEO, Brandon Ball. “This could include increased sales, website traffic, social media engagement, brand sentiment analysis and audience reach.”

Athletes on the other hand understand that fashion is a way to extend their performance beyond the playing surface and establish a personal brand that is separate from their sport. Look no further than Lewis Hamilton who brought high fashion to the Formula 1 grid. His various fashion endeavours – including collaborations with labels ranging from Tommy Hilfiger (“classic American cool”) to Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami (“street style”) – set him apart from the other drivers and helped him expand his brand beyond motorsport. It also gave him a platform on which to credibly advocate for social issues such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights as well as for his Mission 44 foundation (44 being his race number) which supports young people from underrepresented backgrounds pursuing STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at school. There is only one Sir Lewis Hamilton, of course; however, his progression from athlete to brand to activist provides a template for any high-level athlete seeking to build a personal brand that transcends their sport.

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Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton attends The Met Gala. - Source: The Associated Press

The returns on this virtuous circle speak for themselves. The Guardian, citing an October 2023 report published by the influencer marketing platform, Lefty, explains that, “alliances between sports and fashion have generated US $78.5 million in earned media value (EMV) – the metric that measures the earnings a brand can expect from mentions on social media – so far this year.” And The Business of Fashion estimates that the global sports-sponsorship market is expected to grow to US $109.1 billion by 2030.

As ambitious as this projection sounds, it may prove to be conservative over the long term given the prized consumer set this relationship serves. The widely held sentiment that, ‘Younger audiences don’t watch games anymore’ begs the obvious question: well, what are they watching? The answer is content that is focused on individual players over teams and leagues, creative self-expression over team-based uniformity, and pivotal moments – both on and off the playing surface – over actual games. All of which are natural by-products of the sports/fashion nexus and which attract media’s most highly coveted audience: young, diverse, digital-first, and highly engaged. This audience alone assures a long-term run for these partnerships.  

The relationship has also matured through brands re-thinking their approach to working with athletes. Take the obvious concern of athlete underperformance or misconduct. These scenarios have been mitigated by brands diversifying their risk through working with a roster of ambassadors on short-term engagements – see Louis Vuitton’s 13 global ambassadors in 2023 – as opposed to retaining a single marquee spokesperson on a long-term basis. The era of Tiger Woods being the face of Nike for 27 years is likely over with brands choosing instead to craft a deep and diverse lineup of ambassadors capable of being plugged into different campaigns at different times depending on the target demographic.

There is also the question of authenticity and the concern that athletes will be increasingly perceived as passive advertising faces over time causing audiences to disengage and disconnect. This is unlikely given the high level of engagement on all sides. For athletes, the upswing in athlete empowerment described above has expanded their role from paid endorser to active participant in brand development and decision-making. And for brands, while some take a transactional approach and pay players for placement, others, like the Italian luxury fashion house Marni, strive for authenticity by engaging with players as VIP clients. Audiences know authenticity when they see it and will actively engage when they do with the help of LeagueFits – and its one million plus Instagram followers – and a constellation of other social accounts dedicated to the art of the athlete as fashion influencer.

Finally, as a brand category in and of itself, fashion will increasingly be seen as a sort of safe harbour by athletes. Compared to product and service categories involving potential financial risk (investment opportunities), health impacts (alcohol, quick serve restaurants), or reputational harm (cryptocurrency, gambling), fashion will have appeal as both regulator-free and financially competitive while also being seen as having significant upside in terms of the depth and dynamism it can bring to an athlete’s portfolio.

The sky’s the limit for this relationship, so much so that in September 2019 it was rumoured that LVMH was in discussions to purchase storied Italian football club, AC Milan. LVMH denied it and the Rossoneri were eventually purchased by private equity firm RedBird Capital Partners. The rumours, however, weren’t dismissed outright at the time which is understandable given the additional returns that could be generated by LVMH moving into an ownership position. This prompts the obvious question: if it’s conceivable that LVMH could buy AC Milan, is it not unreasonable to imagine an athlete – say, the NBA’s first billionaire, LeBron James – acquiring a luxury fashion brand? The near-term feasibility of both scenarios suggests that the athlete-brand partnership model is set to become even bigger and bolder moving forward.

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Antoine Arnault of LVMH unveils the medals designed by Chaumet for the Paris 2024 games.
Source: The Associated Press

Returning to the day LVMH announced its Paris 2024 partnership, the accompanying press release included a telling comment from its Chairman and CEO, Bernard Arnault: “Sports is a tremendous source of inspiration for our Maisons, which will unite creative excellence and athletic performance by contributing their savoir-faire and bold innovation to this extraordinary celebration.” Anything but corporate-speak, Mr. Arnault’s remarks speak to the alchemy between two of culture’s most powerful forces and how in partnership each is capable of elevating the other’s brand image to extraordinary heights.