[New Zealand] The Tide Turns: More Companies Supporting Pregnancy In Sports

10 MAR 2020

In the wake of the perceived unfair treatment of athlete Alysia Montaño by sponsors around the issue of maternity coverage, a movement supportive of a change in the level of brand support given to female professional athletes began. Activewear brand Cadenshae share Alysia’s story and the tide turn it has inspired.

In 2013 6 x US 800m champion Alysia Montaño (33) left her sponsor Nike after she discovered her pay would cease if she fell pregnant. Months later, the Olympian was picked up by Asics and promised maternity coverage for the future. But, following the birth of her daughter (Linnéa) in 2014 - and after a change of management - Montaño’s contract was cut by Asics due to her performances whilst pregnant.

Montaño’s treatment became the catalyst for a movement to find companies who support female professional athletes in pregnancy, and beyond. Fellow mums and star runners, Allyson Felix (the most decorated female Olympian of all time), and long-distance champion, Kara Goucher joined Montaño’s plight, with all three women speaking out, and standing up for maternal protection in their contracts.

“So many of these major brand sponsorships are highly unfair and downright discriminatory…this discrimination is hidden within fancy verbiage and legal jargon,” Ms Montaño says. 

“Why, just because I am a woman and an athlete should I be penalised for acting on a basic human right? Men don’t lose out on money when they become fathers.”

Since the initial outcry, Montaño, a.k.a. ‘that pregnant runner,’ has gained a four-year sponsorship deal with Cadenshae, an activewear brand specialising in clothing for pregnant and nursing mums. The New Zealand based company is dedicated to backing Montaño in ways that support the whole female athlete.

Cadenshae signed Montaño in October last year, a few weeks after she announced her third pregnancy. The partnership focuses more on allowing Montaño to pursue her newfound role as a women’s maternity rights activist and her most important role – a mum, rather than demanding podium placings.

At around the same time, Felix announced her break-up with Nike for similar reasons to Montaño. The 33-year-old mother of daughter Camryn moved to Athleta, another brand priding itself on backing pregnancy in sport.

In a recent statement, Nike said, “We recognise we can do more and that there is an important opportunity for the sports industry to evolve to support female athletes.”

Nike, Asics and other big-name brands have made some changes to female contracts since the uproar, but there's still a lot of work to be done with traditional sponsorships.

These highly influential athletes have left the big guns in favour of ‘pro-women,’ sponsors, and there’s an increasing number of companies who’re joining the movement.

In February, Altra - who’ve sponsored Goucher since 2018 - upped the ante in support, offering both Montaño and international elite runner Tina Muir (31) contracts…both while pregnant. Montaño’s due date was the end of February, while Muir will give birth to her second child in June.

“We approached Tina and Alysia because they’re expanding their vision and voice to the larger population of runners and women. They’ve taken their athletic accomplishments and attached purpose and vision to it, which extends to helping others,” says Altra's Brand Communications Manager, Shanna Burnette. 

“We’re advocates for what these two are doing for women and mothers. The tide is changing and we’re now looking beyond performance to purpose and people. We've seen that with others in the industry as well, and collectively we can do much more than just by ourselves.”

Felix says the Altra deal struck with Montaño and Muir is a huge step forward and should be celebrated.

“Sponsorship like this shows that women can continue to fulfil their athletic goals while simultaneously experiencing motherhood.”

“When women are supported holistically they have the ability to thrive in all aspects of life,” says the sprint star. 

Nuun Hydration is also choosing to celebrate the pregnant woman, rather than dismiss. The hydration company specialising in electrolyte-based tablets sponsored Montaño in 2019 when she was a mother of two, and increased their sponsorship in 2020, knowing full well she was heavily pregnant with her third child.

Vice-President of Marketing Arielle Knutson says she hopes Nuun’s sponsorship of Montaño will motivate other businesses to provide better maternity coverage for mothers in all career facets, not just the sporting arena.

“We aim to inspire more equity in brand-athlete partnerships.”

“By working with Alysia we hope we can support her journey to be her best as an athlete, mother, and human in her community,” says Knutson.

Cadenshae founder Nikki Clarke says although things have improved, more needs to change for all working women, not just professional athletes.

“Companies like Cadenshae, Athleta, Altra, and Nuun…we’re trying to shift societal views towards women, pregnancy and work, and we do this by sponsoring the big names to get the word out.”

“We do it because we want to, but also because we need to…to pave the way for all expecting and new mums.”

“Women are still so undervalued in 2020 and companies must re-evaluate their maternity coverage policies and compensate more appropriately where needed,” says Clarke.