Seven years ago, Sally Bergesen started a women’s running-clothes company called Oiselle. She had a simple mission: design an attractive pair of running shorts. Over the years, she grew her business and began sponsoring runners. This, however, is where she began to encounter the most resistance.
Bergesen recently watched in frustration as her sponsored runner, Kate Grace, raced at the IAAF World Relays wearing not Oiselle apparel, but Nike. Grace’s teammates were not wearing ASICS, New Balance, or any of the companies that sponsored them either. Because the World Relays is an international event, all American competitors are required to wear Nike, the company that sponsors the American team as a whole.
This was not the first time Bergesen’s sponsorship was suppressed. Back in 2012, when Grace qualified for the Olympic trials, Bergesen designed a singlet compliant with the Olympic’s strict regulations. However, the USATF rejected her first three designs. Her fourth design was so diluted from her original idea that it more or less resembled a solid navy blue shirt. Her logo was nearly invisible. This one they accepted.
Nike is an incredibly influential force in the sport of track and field. The company has been the official sponsor of the USATF since 1991 and will continue its sponsorship until 2040. Its logo is the only athletic-apparel symbol that can be visible on U.S. track and field competitors during the Olympic games. In other words, Nike’s sponsorship of the American team overrides any sponsorship of an individual American competitor.
Bergesen, frustrated with Nike’s apparent monopoly over the entire track and field sponsorship sphere, decided to take a stand. She took to PhotoShop, tweaking a picture of Grace and other runners at the end of a race. She wanted to show the world for which sponsors these women were really running, changing all of the runners’ Nike Swooshes to their sponsors’ logos. She posted the image to Oiselle’s Instagram feed.
Four hours later, Bergesen received a cease-and-desist email from USATF. “The removal and replacement of the Nike Swoosh, especially in the context of a promotional piece, misleads consumers to believe that the USATF team is sponsored by these other brands, and not by Nike,” the letter said. “Oiselle’s display of these doctored photographs not only damages Nike, which is likely to suffer (or has already suffered) direct lost sales resulting from such confusion, but also diminishes the value of USATF’s sponsorships and licensing relationships.”
Though Bergesen’s original reaction to the letter was anger and defiance, she eventually agreed to take down the photo out of fear of a lawsuit.
Bergensen’s initial goal was to simply make quality shorts and athletic bras; however, she has now taken it up on herself to expose the troublesome power dynamics in track and field, particularly the ways the rules oppress small businesses and the athletes they sponsor.
Bergesen has not given up on her crusade against Nike’s monopoly and the USATF’s bullying. In fact, her business partner, Lauren Fleshman, recently proposed to the Athletes Advisory Committee of the USATF her idea for putting power back in the hands of the individual athlete.
Fleshman proposed a solution in which the runner’s race bib would feature a small corner for sponsorship chosen by the athlete. “This proposal says athletes should have a space of our own, that we get to monetize as we see fit, considering we are the asset,” Fleshman said.
“When I started out,” said Bergesen, “I sensed what was lacking in the shorts and I knew that symbolized what was missing in the sport and in the industry as a whole. It ended up being much bigger than the product.”
Interestingly, Bergensen’s battle is not the first time athletic shorts have caused a scandal in the world of sports. The first person to wear shorts at Wimbledon, Henry Austin, did so in 1932 and apparently caused Queen Mary quite a shock.
As trends in fashion and business continue to shift and evolve, there is bound to be no shortage of scandal in the world. No one knows this better than small business owners and innovators like Sally Bergesen.