Track Athletes Given the Chance for More Sponsorships after Rules Relaxed

January 3, 2012

A new international rule has gone into effect Sunday which will give professional track and field athletes greater opportunity to display logos on their uniforms and potentially earn more sponsorships.

It will enhance their chances of attracting corporate sponsorships to help finance their careers in a sport struggling for visibility and credibility. The rule, which permits a second corporate logo in addition to a clothing/shoe-company logo on singlets, is viewed as a welcome first step. Still, many seem confused by what will be allowed at various competitions, where the logo rule can be tightened or relaxed .

Track and field will be the centerpiece of the 2012 London Olympics, but its primacy has eroded at the elite level outside the Summer Games. The global economic downturn has made it more difficult to attract sponsorships while widening the income gap between the sport’s superstars and its less visible strivers.

Adam Nelson of the United States, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, once auctioned himself on eBay and secured an endorsement with a medical technology firm, but it was a onemonth deal worth $12,000, not a long-term investment, according to USA Track and Field. In 2009, after his contract with Nike expired, the French pole-vaulter Romain Mesnil underscored his plight by appearing in a video that made it seem as if he were running naked with a pole through the streets of Paris.

The more permissive logo rule “is a step in the right direction, but the bigger issue is that we need a greater number of sponsors,” said Ray Flynn, a prominent agent. “Outside the shoe companies, there have not been a lot of companies wanting to get involved in the sport.” Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinting star, aspires to be the first track and field athlete to earn $10 million a year. That is a hefty income by most standards , but relative pocket change compared with the $40-million-plus that the soccer superstar Lionel Messi is said to earn yearly in salary and endorsements .

Top marathon runners, who usually compete twice a year, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance, prize and bonus money for a victory in New York, Boston , London, Chicago or Berlin. But, unlike professional football, basketball and baseball players, who rely on collective bargaining, track and field athletes compete – and negotiate – as individuals. Like Bolt, Stephanie Brown Trafton of the United States is an Olympic champion. She won gold in the discus at the 2008 Beijing Games.

But she competes in a relatively obscure event. Her basic Nike contract, she said, pays her $25,000 a year with an additional $25,000 to $30,000 available in performance bonuses – the equivalent of an entry-level salary in engineering, for which she holds a degree. As meager as Brown Trafton’s income is for a professional athlete, she and many others with salaried shoe contracts seem unlikely to benefit immediately from the new logo rule.

Companies like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, which provide the financial spine of the sport by spending tens of millions of dollars a year, want exclusivity to protect their brands. They will very likely prohibit a second logo on singlets or offer smaller contracts to share space, except perhaps for select superstars with clout, athletes, agents and track officials said. Athletes with shoe-company sponsorships will “have to determine whether they want to give that up to have multiple sponsorships ,” Brown Trafton said. “Most will take the main sponsor. It will pay more.” Nike did not respond to a request for comment .

Chris McGuire, head of sports marketing for Adidas America, said, “We support athletes and recognize the benefit partners and sponsorship can provide to support track and field athletes’ training.” Eventually, athletes hope the inclusion of a second corporate logo on their uniforms will give them greater bargaining power.

“I love Nike, but at the same time it’s important to remember that athletes are not employees of shoe companies; they’re independent contractors,” said Nick Symmonds, the United States’ top 800-meter runner. “It hurts my leverage if the shoe company has a monopoly over advertising dollars.”