A retrospective look at athletes & sportswear brands.

Wednesday 15th September was a big day for a relatively little-known Swiss footwear brand.

On Holding, founded in 2010, was making its debut at the New York Stock Exchange, launching an initial public offering (IPO) to help maintain a healthy run of growth. The initiative was a real success. Not only did the company sell 31.1 million shares to raise a total of $746.4 million but the value of those shares leapt by 46 per cent. On ended its first publicly traded day worth about $11 billion.

The Rise of On Holding

There are plenty of reasons for the excitement around On, created by former Ironman winner Olivier Bernhard with his entrepreneurial friends David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti. It is ascending at a point where interest in the potential of sportswear, especially technical equipment aimed at enthusiasts and connected fitness users, is high. As well as high-performance shoes based on proprietary technology, On has developed a fully recyclable line of footwear and caught the attention of investors who see sustainable innovation as an invaluable growth prospect.

None of that, however, is what has earned On media interest from around the world. Since 2019, the company has been partly owned by Roger Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam tennis champion and one of the most marketable athletes of the 21st century. The scale of Federer’s stake has never been publicly disclosed but he does have a signature line of tennis shoes – the Roger Pro is sold out on the On website.

A history of athlete apparel endorsements

Apparel endorsements are one of the basic building blocks of the sports industry and typically the first deals any professional athlete signs. But there is also a history among some stars of weaving themselves more tightly into the fabric of sportswear companies. Michael Jordan’s partnership with Nike is the most consequential. An initial partnership and shoe line in the 1980s drove the rise of what is now the world’s biggest sports business, before the development of the offshoot Jordan Brand helped make basketball’s greatest player a billionaire.

This trend is part of a lineage that long predates that agreement – British sports and fashion brand Fred Perry was founded by the eponymous tennis great in 1952 – but as athletes as investors become more commonplace, it is on the rise again. Sir Andy Murray, who ended the 77-year wait for a British male champion at Wimbledon that followed Perry’s 1936 title, became a seed investor in startup sportswear manufacturer Castore in 2018.

Founded by Liverpudlian brothers Tom and Phil Beahon, Castore has since evolved from a premium performance wear brand to something with a much higher profile, becoming a supplier to Scottish football champions Rangers, Premier League teams Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and England’s national cricket teams, among others. That has been made possible by an injection of capital from another pair of brothers – billionaire retail tycoons Mohsin and Zuber Issa – but the credibility and visibility afforded by Murray were pivotal in those earlier stages.

The 34-year-old’s arrangement with the company involved the creation of his own line, AMC, which is now the apparel partner of the UK’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). Murray’s profile and connections have opened doors for Castore and, in turn, owning a piece of its success can create a long tail for his lifetime earnings.

A Giant step (Literally)

Deeper relationships between athletes and sportswear companies can be leveraged in other ways as well. Sprinter Allyson Felix, for example, moved from Nike to Gap’s Athleta brand after a row over cuts to her fees when she became pregnant. She and her new partners have since launched the Power of She Fund as a source of financial support for female athletes in motherhood. As brand purpose becomes an ever larger part of the marketing mix, initiatives like those are bound to proliferate.

But these associations have long been nuanced and lasting. Former basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal wore Reebok shoes on court for most of his career in the 1990s and 2000s, but in late August of this year recounted a chance meeting with the mother of a young fan that changed the nature of that affiliation. The woman had berated him in public for the high price of the company’s footwear – which stirred an idea in O’Neal.

He claims to have then turned down a $40 million, five-year renewal to endorse Reebok, although he continued to use them in the NBA and has promoted them since. At the time, though, he entered talks with supermarket chain Walmart and created a line of affordable Shaq-branded shoes, priced between $19 and $29. They are still sold today and crucially, O’Neal believes, they have never looked to kids like a budget option.

O’Neal has made a series of investments since his career ended. In 2015, he swapped the rights to his name brand for a stake in Authentic Brands Group (ABG). This year ABG bought Reebok from German giant Adidas for around €2.1 billion.

After years in which he has complained about Adidas’ stewardship of the company that did so much to build his image, and spoken of his own desire to steer it back towards “basketball and fitness”, Shaquille O’Neal now owns a piece of Reebok.

“As a longtime partner of Reebok and an owner of ABG,” he said in a statement, “it’s a dream come true to welcome this legendary brand to the family.”

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