Ok so track and field has once again been thrust into the spotlight…but while not for drug cheating dopers this time for sponsorship/athlete right infringement disputes.
I have decided to lay out the facts (from first hand experience as a member of Team USA Track and Field) and add my opinion since many people have been asking about it!
Living under a rock and don’t know what I’m talking about checkout one of these articles:
The Nick Symmonds/USATF standoff controversy:
Symmonds refused to sign the USATF Team Agreement, due to undefined terms that were in conflict with his individual sponsors agreements. If Symmonds refused to sign the USATF athlete agreement, he would not be added to USATF Team roster for the World Championships, and thus ineligible to compete. The deadline for him to sign came and went and he stuck to his guns and refused to sign and paid the ultimate price loosing his spot on the USA World Championship Team.
The agreement in a nutshell:
USATF (our national governing body for track and field in the United States), requires ALL athletes attending Team sponsored trips to wear the provided Nike gear (or one’s own Nike gear, or non branded gear) in competition, as well as “ official Team Functions”. When an athlete sign’s the team agreement, the agree to adhere to this rule. USATF 2015 agreement
So why the controversy? First let me paint you a picture of the professional track and field athlete in the US.
How Track and Field sponsorship and “making it” as a “professional “ athlete works in the US for Track and Field:
Top ranked athletes in all events seek out/ or the lucky few are sought out by different companies to represent said company or product. What representing that company may mean varies from athlete contract to athlete contract. The best case scenario an athlete gets free product AND a salary/bonus/stipend from this product’s company, in return the athlete actively wears, uses, promotes, advertises on behalf of the company. If you are one of the “endangered species” professional track and field athletes you actually make enough to not only cover daily living and training expenses you can actually call it a career.
Track and field receives very little media spotlight attention except once every four years during the Olympics. Therefore this makes it very difficult for athletes trying to market themselves. Why does a company want to invest in you, if you have very little exposure?
What are the major exposure opportunities for US track and field athletes?
USATF sanctioned National Championships (one indoor and one outdoor meet a year), a Grand Prix series of National Championships for road racing and race walk, big invitations such as Penn Relays, Drake Relays, Hoka One One Invite etc etc. Some of these meets are televised on ESPN (a three-five day meet gets 2-6hrs of broadcast time, only key events, snippets, and interviews are televised. The rest of the meet can often (this is as of recently only) be viewed on webcast on USATF-tv. The same goes for invitationals with even less coverage than the major national championships. Runnerspace also does a nice job covering post race interviews available on the web only.
Diamond League meets are another opportunity for some exposure. The majority of these races take place in Europe (two of them, Adidas Grand Prix, and Prefontaine Classic, are in the US). ESPN has some major highlights/coverage of the US meets and sometimes you can catch the European races on something like Universal sports (assuming you have that channel). Other than that it’s watching these prestigious races (where World and National records are often broken) online via webcast.
World Championships are often never on tv in the United States, and difficult to find live webcasts. These meets, like the Olympics, are USA Team funded and thus an athlete doesn’t rep his/her individual sponsor, instead he/she wears the national team uniform. Therefore exposure at the highest stage is limited only to the National Team sponsor, for USATF it’s Nike.
The Olympic Games are even more tightly regulated as a result of something called “Rule 40” which prohibits an athlete from endorsing, publicizing etc any company that is not a International Olympic Committee sponsor. Rule 40 creates a media blackout period prior to, through, and just after the Olympic Games for non-IOC sponsors. For more info read my past blog about Rule 40 during the London Olympic Games.
So you are starting to get the picture now right?
Social media has perhaps become an athlete’s greatest platform for exposure. Through social media I can keep my fans up-to-date on my training, racing, and daily life…as well as all the products/companies etc that help make it possible. Athletes readily utilize social media to broaden their exposure targeting a larger audience, gaining support for his/her sponsor and one’s self alike.
The major problem:
Fantastic! USATF provides us a National Team Uniform Kit (which is the latest and greatest, no controversy there). Depending on the level of competition, duration of travel/training/competition, and time of the season the kit includes the bare minimum of a racing outfit, podium suit, baggage, and some tee shirts, and can be as extensive as an entire checked rolling suitcase bursting with free gear.
Here’s the catch:
As a member of Team USA, you must sign an agreement (for the most part this was always a technicality as you were so ecstatic to have made a team and eager for you kit and the competition to arrive) stating you will represent your country wearing team issued gear…at “official team functions.”Read here: USATF 2015 agreement
At first glance most do not see the harm in such an agreement. USATF is after all providing the gear free of charge, why not wear it?
The issue is if you have another sponsor and it is other than Nike, you cannot represent this sponsor, pretty much in any capacity, during a Team USA USATF Team Function. This includes training and sharing it on social media. Therefore one’s ability to showcase his/her sponsor has been greatly limited. In turn less incentive for other companies to sponsor individual athletes.
The current controversy revolves around vaguely defined wording of “official Team Function”. What exactly qualifies as an “official Team Function”? USATF already spells out in your congratulations letter that this includes competition, training camps, and meet hotel. But some argue, who’s to stop them there…could one day this grow to include from the moment an athlete is named to the National Team through competition that an athlete must wear the national team uniform?
Let’s not forget two things:
- USATF provides a free Nike Uniform Kit that you must wear when competing but during the rest of the “official Team Function” period one can wear the kit, Nike, OR anything whose branding is non-descript.
- USATF is after all covering an athlete’s expenses during competition and training camps.
This includes but is not limited to:
- Airfare to destination (or a travel voucher for a previously disclosed amount if an athlete chooses to book on his/her own. Also worth noting you have flexibility in which airline they book you on)
- Hotel/lodging during training camp
- Meals during training camp
- Medical services (USATF staff’s a full team of medical doctors, massage therapists, athletic trainers, chiropractors, nutritionist, and sports psychologists) Yes these professionals are providing their services free of charge, but many other countries athletes are not so lucky
- $10 USD per diem (yes not much but all other expenses are taken care of)
- Access to training facilities (this varies based on locations but includes a training track, weight room, cardio room) in 2012 USATF literally renovated a practice track just for US athletes in London so we didn’t have to fight for space among other countries on the provided LOC track…this included providing us “personal” security to ensure our safety at this off site track
- Reconnaissance prior to any trip where they scout out the best location and facilities to train, to maximize an athlete’s benefit (you set up your own training camp and it’s not just the expenses you have to cover but the logistics too must be navigated on your own)
- Location specific extras…for example Beijing’s air quality is a major issue and USATF has arranged for us to have masks and air purifiers to remove allergens
Ok now with all that being said while I am extremely grateful to USATF for all they have provided me in both the tangibles and intangibles let’s get into what I feel is lacking and inadequate…or simply just food for thought moving forward.
The gear provided:
It’s awesome, I love it, don’t get me wrong but the amount is actually lacking when you consider having to wear it for 2 weeks straight (minimum if you attend the training precamp) …especially since we are expected to solely wear this. Here is what I specifically got for precamp-world champs 2015:
3 pairs of socks
2 pairs of shorts
2 pair of capris
2 pairs of spandex tights
3 short sleeve t-shirts
2 long sleeve t-shirt
1 long sleeve half zip
1 racing top
1 racing bottom
1 podium jacket
1 podium pants
1 wind jacket
1 wind pants
1 rain jacket w/hood
1 rain suit pants
1 sweatshirt jacket
1 sweat pants bottom
1 drawstring bag
1 large rolling suitcase
1 small rolling suitcase
1 hat (unisex size!)
Now being as it will be 80-90s the entire time most of the gear will keep me warm inside a nice AC’d hotel, but be of no use for training outside. Let’s also keep in mind that while one races in minimal gear, you also warm up on raceday in at least a t-shirt and shorts and you never want to send off your competition gear to a laundry service in another country for fear of it not being returned, or ruined. Additionally, no sports bras were distributed for this trip. Now as I am not sponsored by another company (ie Brooks, Oiselle, Adidas etc etc) I do have a few Nike brand pieces I have purchased over the years (I actually purchased several sports bras and tanks tops to have enough warm weather gear for World Champs in 2011). I also have been fortunate to have made USA teams for the past 10 years and have some of that old Nike Team USA gear. I also received a Team USA Uniform Kit earlier this year for Pan Am Cup (while a lot less gear) which gives me a few extras of the current pieces. One should also be aware that if you made multiple teams including the Pan AM Games, NACAC, and/or World Championship Teams you were instructed that you only received one larger kit to be used for all Teams so do not trade it or loose it. Therefore a relative newbie or non-Nike sponsored athlete does not have the opportunity to get additional pieces from multiple trips this summer. The reasoning behind this is there are at least 7 Team USA trips this summer alone and being one year out from the Olympics (our gear cycles with each Olympiad with a new kit debuting each Olympic Games) they are very limited in what they have to give out.
Now it would be entirely just to call someone greedy who felt they should receive more gear IF they were allowed to wear whatever they wanted during training and during downtime, however USATF has made this very clear that this is not the case. Therefore if you really require us to wear our gear 24/7 during an “official Team Function” then provide a reasonable amount of gear to cover the entire duration of the “official Team Function”.
The Nick Symmonds/USATF standoff
At first I was a little put off the way Nick Symmonds argument was coming across in the media. He refused to sign the USATF Team Agreement, due to undefined terms that were in conflict with his individual sponsors agreements.
In a nut shell:
If Symmonds refused to sign the agreement, he would not be added to USATF Team roster for the World Championships, and thus ineligible to compete. The deadline for him to sign came and went and he stuck to his guns and refused to sign and paid the ultimate price loosing his spot on the USA World Championship Team.
In defense to USATF:
- This type of language and agreement is not anything new (although this is not justification for it being right/fair)
- USATF does NOT require Symmonds to attend the precamp…he can choose to arrive directly in Beijing right before the competition and train in Japan, China or anywhere else in the world of his choosing prior to competing and train, travel, and lounge in whatever he pleases. There is not (at least not currently) a Rule 40 like black out date that would prevent him or any other athlete from doing this.
In defense to Nick Symmonds:
- USATF sponsorship policies make individual sponsorship challenging to obtain and retain
- USATF/NIKE partnership takes advantage of its National Team Athletes
- Estimated annual worth $20 million
- what the athletes are projected to receive is estimated to fall way short at 2.46 million (see ref article here)
1. USATF clearly defines “official Team Functions” so that exactly when the uniform/Nike gear/ non descripted branded gear needs to be worn is specified
-I propose that if USATF is fully funding an athlete’s expenses for training/travel/competition purposes then they are justified in enforcing the Team Uniform policy
-Included in this, USATF would be required to provide an adequate amount of gear to cover the entire length of the said “official Team Function”
2. Pay your way- USATF can provide an option for all athletes to foot the bill for preamp expenses, including travel, lodging, meals, facility fees, medical service fee…if an athlete chooses to pay then he/she is free and clear to wear whatever, whenever they like during that said period of the training camp
Another way to look at this: the “other” sports perspective
The way other sports NGB and National Teams operate have come up in several articles that have reported on this. The NYTimes referenced the statement by Jill Geer (USATF media spokeswoman) “Steph Curry is with Under Armour, and LeBron James is with Nike. Both men played in Adidas uniforms in the N.B.A. finals last season.” While the statement was made in defense of USATF, and was meant to provide example that sponsorships clashes between individual athletes and federations is not an uncommon occurrence; it is not really relevant to USATF/NIKE’s sponsorship position. Individual/Team sponsorship clashes do exist, however comparing USATF and the NBA is NOT comparing apples to apples. NBA players (like those of MLB, NFL, NHL) are professional athletes who receive salaries from the league. Thus it is more logical/fair/reasonable to require individuals to continually conform to league uniform standards. USATF does NOT pay ANY athlete a yearly salary. The only way a “salary” is earned is based off of placing well at National Championships (5,000 for indoor national champion, 7,000 for an outdoor national champion). I’m pretty sure if Lebron James could at best make 12,000 for winning a National Championship he would object to uniform constraints.
The solution in this case, is provide and require athletes to wear the National Team gear AND pay them a yearly salary. Now we could actually start calling track and field athletes, “professional” athletes. Yes, this could further limit individual sponsorship but assuming (yes this is always dangerous to do) the salaries paid out by USATF we fair and reasonable, and could actually allow an athlete to survive off of, I think most would be in favor of such a change. At least if USATF paid athletes named to the National Team salaries, these athletes would be much more willing to wear the National Team gear exclusively during “official Team Functions”.
What happens now moving forward?:
Clearly Symmonds forfeited his rightfully earned ticket to World Championships to take a stand for something he passionately believes in. The ball of change has been set in motion and let’s hope it continues rolling. It was suggested by another Olympian that changes like this are best negotiated out during the USATF annual convention. I can attest (I’ll admit I only attended last year for the first time) that while open dialogue freely flows at such meetings, the actual impact of this dialogue and measurable change that ensues is very sobering. I would argue that Symmonds has made the strongest possible statement and hopefully it is used as a springboard at the Annual Meeting to create well defined measurable change.
Last year at the Annual Meeting, the AAC (athlete advisor committee) spent great lengths of time discussing and trying to put into words just how you define a professional track and field athlete in the US. No consensus with a clear definition was achieved but I really thought we were on the right track. We left the meeting thinking more discussions were to come, but unfortunately that has not been the case. The purpose of defining who qualifies as a professional athlete was to establish criteria that would be used to determine who qualified to be provided a paid salary because they were deemed professional. We were under the impression that our CEO, Max Siegel, had successfully raked in a “surplus” of funding from new sponsors, and some of this would go to paying professional athlete salaries. Perhaps after this year’s meeting something more concrete will be achieved and implemented sooner rather than later.
Change with in USATF:
Change is definitely needed, how we, as united athletes, go about achieving such change remains to be seen. How will we define what qualifies one as a professional athlete? What is a fair requirement for when National Team Gear/Nike/non-branded apparel must be worn? What is the right answer and how will USATF operate National Teams from here on out, well only time can tell.
The time for change is now, and we must not fall apathetic but continue to fight for reform and improvement within our NGB! We have seen USATF board of executives “listen” to the athletes when the unjust/incorrect disqualification of Andrew Bumbalough was overturned…but we have also seen them ignore the vote of the people the past December regarding USATF nominee for IAAF council. Let’s hope people like Symmonds continue to stay at bat, and attend future USATF annual meetings. Yes often there decisions are made behind close doors and progress is at best slow but for now it is what we have. Oh and yes, let’s not forget our collective voices on social media. We saw how powerful social media was at getting Grunewald rightfully reinstated on Team USA for 2014 World Indoor Champs (albeit USATF took the back ended way out of doing the right thing, at least it ended with the correct athlete proudly racing for Team USA).
I have shared my own thoughts and suggestions, and I am curious to hear back from you. Feel free to comment back with your own take, thoughts and suggestions regarding this “issue”. Please keep your responses professional and free of profane language.
I have qualified to represent the USA at the World Championships this summer. I personally signed the athlete agreement and will be attending both the preamp and competition itself. My intent in writing this was not to defend or bash USATF, rather to paint a better picture of the facts and the current state of USATF and the policies that impact National Team athletes like myself. There are many things that I like about USATF as a NGB and am thankful for, there are however a list of actions, policies, and decisions that I am horrified and appalled by. As a personal disclaimer, I wrote this on my own with my only objective to educate people about the facts and when noted shared my own thoughts, opinions, and suggestions.