By Nick Hilton
There’s been a lot of intrigue recently surrounding the young but successful women’s running apparel company Oiselle. Their signing of running wonder woman Kara Goucher has propelled the company to the top of headlines in the running community and even garnered national interest in publications such as the Wall Street Journal.
Oiselle has been around for a few years and has quietly been gaining traction in the running specialty market and in the elite community as well.
But who are these ladies? What makes them different from other companies and other teams?
Oiselle was founded in 2007 by Sally Bergesen, a marketing professional in Seattle who had developed a love for the sport, but a disdain for the state of women’s running apparel. “Baggy and ill-fitting” were some words she used to describe the clothes she tried on when making a competitive return to running.
Bergesen was no running rookie having been a high school cross-country runner. She fell out of the sport and into some bad habits through her college years but picked it back up after a trip to France and found success.
She competed regionally and nationally for Club Northwest, a club based in the Pacific Northwest, and boasts a sub 3:00 hour marathon and a 17:06 5k PR.
Shortly after entering the sports apparel market, Oiselle got involved in the elite running scene.
Bergesen describes the Oiselle family as being “really huge track nerds at heart” and thinks that sponsoring pro athletes is “one of the best ways to build the brand with pure authenticity.”
Yale graduate Kate Grace was the company’s first signing. The unheralded Grace began to hit her stride once signing with Oiselle and had incredibly strong 2012 and 2013 campaigns, breaking 2:00 minutes in the 800 and 4:10 in the 1500.
Beyond professional athlete sponsorship, one of the driving marketing forces for Oiselle is social media. Bergesen states the Oiselle is “very social media driven” and with that philosophy, it’s not surprising that they’re next big signing was the social media tour de force Lauren Fleshman.
Fleshman writes an incredibly successful blog and is one of the most followed professional runners on Twitter and Facebook.
That signing made waves nationally, as Fleshman, a multi-time U.S. champion, was the first big name athlete to sign with the relatively small company. It’s apparent from their moves that Oiselle was going to change the game.
“We welcome athletes to Oiselle as family.”
– Sally Bergesen
Oiselle was now a player in the elite game. As of 2013, there were 250 team members nationwide, competing on all different levels while representing the Oiselle brand.
Team members are required to live by Oiselle’s “Principles of Flight,” a set of mores that promote positive and healthy lifestyles for female runners. Team members pledge to adhere to principles such as “build the sisterhood,” “tell your story,” and “race with fire.”
It’s this message, along with the passion of the company, which attracted elite runners Amanda Winslow and Lauren Penney to the crew.
Bergesen and Oiselle believe that “they have done a good job recognizing emerging talent” and finding “hungry young runners” for their team.
It was this eye for talent that led them to Florida State graduate Winslow.
Winslow finds their relationship to be “special” because of the “family-like feel.” Unlike with other companies, athletes like Winslow are able to play a bigger part in the company and be a part in some “behind the scenes” decisions.
Penney, a former Syracuse standout, “fell in love with their clothes but also everything they stood for in empowering women who run.”
It’s clear that Penney finds Oiselle to be more than just her sponsor.
“Our relationship provides me with a lot of what I need to be a successful runner,” Penney said. “Besides the material things, Oiselle has created a network of women who are true superfans, and the way they use social media has given me a massive support system. I feel so fortunate to be part of a running family that is so empowering.”
“Women are competitive, women want to race, women want to win.”
- Sally Bergesen
Bergesen doesn’t want women to shy away from competition and runs her company in a similar fashion.
“Women’s brands have shied away from competition,” she stated in an interview for Run Fan Radio last month. “I’m totally fascinated by the athletes who are performing at the highest level, and I love their stories.”
Oiselle is going to be a player in the elite sponsorship market. With signings of major athletes like Fleshman and Goucher, along with their eye for young emerging talent, it’s hard to argue that they’re not doing it right.
Oiselle’s methods are unconventional, but they are innovative and a breath of fresh air to the track and field community. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a group of athletes who are truly inspired by, loyal to, and motivated by the company that is aiding them in their professional pursuits.
More often than not, athletes jump to whichever company pays them the most, and who can blame them? The sport of distance running isn’t necessarily the biggest money maker, and often, the more support you can get, the faster you’ll be able to run.
But to see athletes who are racing inspired, with a mantra and a set of mores, athletes who believe in the message of their sponsor, and who live to promote the sport and strengthen the community of women in athletics is certainly a unique phenomenon.
“There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in terms of how the industry looks at contracts and develops them.”
– Sally Bergesen
It’s going to be interesting to see how the industry changes and reacts to the Oiselle phenomenon.
In a time when change in our sport is almost certainly imminent, the power of the bird’s message rings loud and clear to all the athletes who are listening.
Although Bergesen claims that they are “not in the business of social justice,” she admits that “traditional contracts fall so short of what it could be in terms of emphasis and performance”
She wants to find a way to “connect our pros with our community,” something which will almost certainly raise the profile of the sport as a whole.
In the end though, lasting change comes down to us, the athletes.
“Really, it’ll be up to the athletes to push for some change for the way contracts are offered,” said Bergesen. “It’s not going to happen until the athletes talk to the companies about how they promote a value beyond their stats.”
Oiselle can go a long way to helping put track and field athletes’ situation on a different path, but at the end of the day, it’s up to us.
Nick Hilton is a manager at Run Flagstaff in Flagstaff, Arizona where he trains as a professional distance runner. He is a 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and a member of Team Run Flagstaff Pro. He competes in distances ranging from the mile to the marathon. Follow him on Twitter @Nackhilton and on his personal blog The Moderately Talented Distance Runner.