“It’s hard to really put into words what her impact has been, for a generation and spanning generations,” Tanya Hvizdak tells Boardroom of Serena Williams.
Serena Williams is synonymous with sporting excellence, so much so that she didn’t even surprise herself when, at 40 years old, she upset the No. 2-ranked player at the US Open earlier this week.
“I mean,” she smiled. “I’m just Serena.”
For the past two decades of her record-setting run, Williams has elevated the sport. Her performance, as great as it’s been, is not her only vehicle for greatness. She has also raised the bar through her assured style on the court and her impact off the court through a myriad of business ventures, inclusionary programs, and endorsement deals.
Perhaps no deal of Serena’s has been more groundbreaking and mutually beneficial than her partnership with Nike.
From a sports marketing standpoint, Nike had an exceptional 2003 year, adding multiple foundational athletes that would go on to define and advance the eras of their respective fields.
After adding a teenage LeBron James and thrice-champion Kobe Bryant during the spring and summer months on the basketball side, the Swoosh still had another landmark signing in store to close out the year, landing Serena Williams in December.
Then just 21 years old, her high-eight-figures endorsement deal initially spanned five years and has since been routinely extended. The partnership is set to reach its second decade next year.
According to Tanya Hvizdak, Nike’s VP of Global Women’s Sports Marketing overseeing all female athlete endorsers, the brand proudly holds a “long-term commitment” with Williams, which will soon begin extending beyond her playing days and well into the future.
In tandem with the brand’s 50th anniversary, Nike bestowed upon Williams one of its greatest honors for an athlete: her very own Beaverton, Ore., campus building.
“When I was just a kid, I visited the Nike campus and I saw that athletes get buildings!” Williams said earlier this year. “After that visit, I knew I wanted two things: to be a Nike athlete and to have a building.”
As Williams prepares to push herself through the field of the US Open in what is expected to be her final professional tournament before “evolving away” from the sport, Boardroom caught up with Hvizdak on the morning of Serena’s third-round match to discuss her legacy with Nike, her impact on the brand’s approach to athlete partnerships, and what’s in store ahead for the iconic Swoosh athlete.
Nick DePaula: How has Serena impacted the way Nike thinks about redefining sport for a new generation?
Tanya Hvizdak: It’s hard to really put into words what her impact has been, for a generation and spanning generations. Even her impact for us as a brand. She’s transcended sport. It’s beyond just tennis, and I would say it’s even beyond just sport in general. Her impact has essentially been unapologetic, and she’s been able to show up and be her authentic self and be successful. That’s truly inspired people, whether you play a sport or not, which is truly incredible.
NDP: When you look back at her two decades with the company, what are some of the milestones along the way from a brand and partnership standpoint?
TH: There’s been so many. From a performance perspective, there’s so many memorable ones, in regards to how she’s shown up, because she’s literally made the court the runway. Even at this last US Open, 400 swarovski and diamonds from her own jewelry company are embedded into the shoes.
As I start to think about some of those massive milestones, the beauty of Serena is it’s even beyond sport. I think about the Serena Williams Design Crew that she stood up. We really try to listen to the voice of the athlete, and that’s something that we’re really committed to. She’s passionate about design and making sure that new voices are heard. More recently, she now has the biggest building on campus with the Serena Williams Building.
Then, there’s small moments that I personally am proud of. She even referenced it on one of her IG [posts]. She was talking about the catsuit that she wore at Roland Garros. She was really in need of something from a product perspective, and we tried to innovate to make sure that we were addressing her needs as it pertains to some of the blood clot issues that she was having. There are some that are a personal nod, and then some that are an inflection point for the brand that I know we’re proud of.
NDP: How has Serena impacted the way Nike thinks about the athlete partnership model in general?
TH: I think the beauty about Serena is she encompasses it all. Truly, if you listen to the voice of the athlete, from a brand and business perspective, you’re not going to go wrong. She’s the absolute model. She isn’t afraid to share opportunities that she’s identified. She isn’t afraid to push where she thinks we can do better.
She’s also not afraid to say, ‘Hey, this is what we need from a brand aspect.’ That’s influenced us in the space of product and innovation, and it’s influenced us in bringing diverse communities into functions that we’ve had opportunities to elevate with the Serena Williams Design Crew.
I’m excited about the future. She had talked about what her legacy looks like as we look forward, and we’ll see what happens. Maybe that’s Serena Ventures, and what does that future hold? That’s what I’m looking forward to.
NDP: On the court, and you alluded to it with the notion of the runway, but how has Serena elevated and influenced the style of the game?
TH: She made it OK to show up as yourself and bring some flair to it. There’s a place for it, in terms of the traditional and historic aspect, but you also have to be able to show up as your authentic self. I think that’s what transcends sports. There’s a professionalism piece to it, but then there’s also the [element of], ‘Hey, if I feel good, I’m going to play and I’m going to show up as my best.’
Nobody has done that better than Serena. I think people get equally excited to see what she’s going to wear and how she’s going to enter the court. That first match on Monday, when all of a sudden, it said ‘Serena Williams’ [across the display board], and she pulls off that [dress tail] and that look, it was incredible.
NDP: This week, we’ve seen her figure skating dress and diamond sneakers get a great reception. How far along does that get designed and what is that process like?
TH: We know the athlete really well, so sometimes, we’ll bring in potential storylines and things for her to respond to, but she is involved in the details and she is involved in sharing the things that she would like to show up in and the storyline that she thinks will cut through.
She obviously had an appreciation for the skating aspect, and just the beauty and intricacy of it. Our team tried to bring in notable aspects in regards to how many grand slams [she’s won] and the six layers [representing her six US Open wins], but then also paying homage to the other things she’s involved in, like her jewelry line. She has final sign off, and it’s her outfit.
NDP: I know Michael Johnson wore the gold shoes in 1996, but has Nike ever had an athlete wear diamonds in competition like this?
TH: I am hard-pressed to think of another athlete where we have incorporated diamonds into their arena of sport kit. There’s not one that comes to mind.
NDP: I was keeping a close eye on the ball boys and girls, to see if anything chipped off, how quickly they’d be scrambling.
TH: My understanding is there were 400 Swarovski crystals, and then the deubre was diamonds through her Serena Williams Jewelry company. We’ve made [special edition] products for athletes that had gold or diamonds, but not in their arena of sport and for play.
NDP: I also saw that Nike gifted her with four Air Force 1s inspired by some of her past match outfits. She had said the “Flo-Jo” outfit was her personal favorite. Which outfits of hers over the years stick out to you?
TH: They’re all pretty spectacular, and I love the fact that all of them are moments [and] time-based on her journey. We were listening to her voice and how she felt she would perform her best with how she showed up. Whether she was feeling a bit of flash, or if she really wanted to collaborate with Virgil [Abloh].
The one that really sticks out, honestly, is the [black and red] catsuit. I feel like we met her where she was in terms of her physical needs. Yet, we helped her show up spectacularly, and she looked phenomenal. That’s one of my personal favorites, and being a mom, I kind of have an attachment to that one.
NDP: I also liked how they also told the chapters, starting with the denim skirt and then you could see the progression from there.
NDP: As we look to the future, how will Nike continue to champion Serena beyond her retirement to carry on her legacy?
TH: I’m really excited about that. We have a long-term commitment with her, and there’s going to be a lot of what she’s been involved with. The Serena Design Crew, the Athlete Think Tank, and keeping the athlete at the center. I can see her continuing to be involved with athletes and that collective as we continue to move forward.
She’s continuing to figure out what that next chapter looks like, and she’s excited to figure out how the partnership will evolve. When she’s finally done, we actually have a couple of meetings in the fall to help figure out what additional things we’ll be working on together. The nice thing is we have a fantastic foundation that’s really starting to establish that legacy.
NDP: What has been the impact of the Serena Building, now that employees are back on campus and can utilize the resources on site?
TH: It’s been fantastic. I know I’m biased, but there’s really no better place — especially with having the Serena Building now, which is also where our design studio is. It’s the biggest building on campus. It’s just unprecedented. The campus is absolutely beautiful, and the energy is amazing. We actually have a kick-off day next week with our “Just Do It Day” where we’ll celebrate our employees.
Serena was out there taking a look at her building, and that was one of my most exciting moments. To see Serena look at her building for the first time was a humbling moment, and it was special. It’s 140 full-court tennis courts and, standing upright, it’s 10 stories tall and the tallest building in Beaverton. It’s stunning.
NDP: Are there any key learnings from working with Serena that you hope you can carry forward as you continue working with the next generation of female athletes?
TH: Listening to the insights of our athletes has always brought us to a better spot, and Serena has really reinforced that. With the Athlete Think Talk, that’s essentially the premise. What are the opportunities that athletes see for us as a brand?
It could be in the space of product and innovation, or it could be in purpose, community or sustainability. That’s really what she’s instilled, and it’s really helped to reaffirm that that path is the way forward. I’m really looking forward to continue that legacy of hers through that group.
NDP: How has it been watching her final run here, and what’d you think of her opening match on Monday and her upset win on Wednesday?
TH: Over the last several months, I think there were questions around, ‘What does this close look like?’ With her trying to work her way into this last run at the US Open, on Monday, she showed all of us.
As she stated, she’s Serena, and when she shows up, she has the ability to win. And then it was interesting, everyone said, ‘Oh, she’s got the No. 2-ranked player on Wednesday,’ and I was thankful enough to have been there.
That first set, it was 5-4, and then all of a sudden she got broken, and I was like, ‘OK, does she have the wind to pull this off?’ The second set, she was feeling it out and let it go a little bit, and then it was, OK, game on. I’m not going out like this.
I think you saw that fierce competitor, and it’s been incredibly exciting to see her full personality. Seeing [her husband] Alexis [Ohanian] and [her daughter] Olympia [in the stands], I think this US Open is truly encapsulating everything about her. I couldn’t be more thrilled for her to be on that stage in this moment, in New York. For everyone to see what we’ve always known as a brand is just truly how spectacular she is.