Skip to main content

In our latest blog we take a look at the importance of authenticity in the world of sports marketing. Does it really matter if a sportswear brand uses an athlete, sports personality or a fitness model in sports marketing campaigns? The Brandwave team investigates.

Meryl David, the Olympic ice dancer, tweeted 3 pictures side by side: Bella Hadid wearing Nike, Kylie Jenner wearing Puma, and Aly Raisman (gymnast) wearing Reebok. The tweet read, “I’ll take the one promoted by the athlete please”. Some people took it as offensive or hateful, but her overall message makes sense; why are major sports brands turning to models like Gigi Hadid and Kylie Jenner who are not famous for being athletes? It doesn’t make logical sense to many and it has been drawing negative feedback from women and men all over the world.

Nike Beautiful X Powerful

One of Nike’s great campaigns, “Beautiful x Powerful” was, in a way, an ironic name, considering the face of the campaign was Bella Hadid, the incredibly skinny supermodel known for gigs like walking in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

Why she was chosen for a Nike campaign about being “powerful” is confusing; should Nike, a sports brand, have used an athlete to promote powerful women in the sports world? The problem with using models for athletic brand campaigns too often is that it ultimately just strengthens the stereotype that all women, athletes or not, have to look a certain way; “too much” muscle or bulk is not feminine or attractive. On a more functional level, athletes modeling athletic products is more sensible because the consumer will be wearing/using it to participate in an athletic activity, and wants to see how it looks on an athlete, not a size 0 model.

So why are brands opting for models over athletes?

Social media. Over the past few years, social media marketing has become one of the top ways for brands to get their products and messages out there. Suddenly, a person who has millions of Instagram followers is just as attractive as a professional athlete for a sporting brand sponsor. Maria Sharapova, an incredibly talented and popular tennis player has been in her fair share of sports campaigns. But, she hasn’t been the face of a campaign in years… why? We’re sure there are lots of reasons why but one of them is probably reach and audience groups. She has 2.6 million Instagram followers. Bella Hadid has 14 million followers (link here)

Athletic (and all) brands see social as an opportunity to market to a bigger audience. When we’re talking about 14 vs. 2.6 million one could say that it doesn’t matter whether those featured are athletes or not. Is it also that these brands are seeking to further establish themselves in the traditional fashion world, so partnerships with these models provide a different level of authenticity outside the traditional sporting world?

Brands like Nike or Adidas have already established themselves as top global sports brands; there is no need to be opting for models over athletes because of the number of followers on social media. Under Armour, despite their ad with Gisele Bundchen that received backlash, has otherwise been representing female athletes with their campaigns featuring ballerina, Misty Copeland and alpine ski racer, Lindsey Vonn (and more).

Women in sport

Some people may wonder why it matters if a company uses models or athletes in their campaigns, but it really does have an effect. Women in sports already experience a certain level of sexism from the moment they pick up their first racket or kick their first football; women should not be too bulky, women should not have muscular arms, etc.

When sports brands choose to work with unattainably skinny models like Bella Hadid or Kendall Jenner over athletes, they are reinforcing this stereotype that all women should look skinny and it also discredits female athletes everywhere. As is the opinion of many women, if a company selling sporting goods deliberately chooses to not use athletes in their campaigns, what is it saying about their regard for the talent of female athletes? We also have to consider the fact that this almost never happens with the male counterparts. When was the last time Nike decided to have a male model in their campaign over Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James? So, whether these companies realize it or not, the message being conveyed is that men can look muscular and athletic while female athletes should look like a fashion model.


In the end, the debate of whether to use athletes or models in marketing campaigns has nothing to do with shaming or criticizing the models involved in these deals. It really comes back to the brands and their decisions on whether or not to choose an athlete. Brands in the sports world have to remember what their company aims to do and who they’re marketing to. In the past, they have strived to provide high quality, functional performance gear to athletes. With just this goal and their consumers in mind, these companies should be choosing successful athletes to promote their products before opting for another fashion model. But, it also poses the idea that maybe these brands are looking for a slight change in their image.

With athleisure such a prominent trend it’s no wonder that these big sports companies want to continue to develop and rebrand into more fashionable, lifestyle brands as well as continue their success as authentic sports brands. It’s where these two sometimes significantly different audience groups collide that creates a problem and sometimes very vocal public backlash (link here).

Vicky Stickland