I’ve spent countless hours the last few months telling anyone willing to listen (and more than a few that weren’t) about the need to professionalize the sport of track and field and its athletes. At first glance, the question of what makes an athlete a professional is easy: it’s someone who gets paid for competing in his sport. But like any worker, athletes don’t get paid for the act of doing their work- they get paid because they add or create value for their employer. Athletes do this by being the best at their sport – making the plays, winning the games and titles – which creates value for the team owners by driving fans to the stadiums, to the games on TV and to the store to buy the jerseys and shoes. They also create value for their sponsor by competing under their sponsors’ logos, representing those brands off the field, and giving customers a way of identifying with the company through the athlete.
Creating and trading value is the sole basis for business, including sport. Yet for the life of me, when I look at the majority of track and field athletes sponsored by a shoe company, I can’t figure out what the company gets out of it. How does Nike benefit by conferring a minimal salary on track and field athletes across the country, other than denying these athletes to their (Nike’s) competitors? Do they really sell that many more shoes because athletes that are unseen and mostly anonymous to all but the few die-hard track fans (who probably aren’t even Nike’s advertising target market, anyway) are wearing the swoosh? I find it hard to believe that Nike – or any multinational shoe company, but especially Nike, those vilified money-grubbing fat cats – doesn’t have a precisely calculated WIFM (what’s in it for me) factor. But really, what is in it for them?
The apparent lack of ROI for a shoe company sponsoring a track and field athlete makes these contracts look more like a grant than a business deal. I sometimes wonder if Nike would have a better bottom line by converting their track and field sponsorship deals to a non-profit structure – at least then they would get the tax write-off.
Grants make up another small but crucial revenue stream for track and field athletes. From small community groups up to the US Olympic Committee, a range of foundations support athletes in non-revenue sports. As with any grant, the grantor expects minimal return, at least in any tangible sense. For a non-profit, the opportunity to say “We supported Joe Athlete’s Olympic dreams” may be worth the outflow. Since the athlete’s performance has little to no impact on the grantor’s bottom line – indeed, the bottom line was scarcely a factor in the decision – the grantor has little reason to develop a long-term relationship with any particular athlete. Most, in fact, are designed to be one-and-done grants to help propel an athlete to the level where they can garner a true sponsorship deal. The practical reality, though, is that the grant is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
I get so wrapped up on the issue of value creation in sport because understanding this is the only way we can hope to make track and field both professional and sustainable. When an athlete creates value for their sponsor, it becomes the sponsor’s self-interest to expand and deepen their relationship with that athlete. From the athlete’s side, the more value they can create both on and off the track, the better their relationship with their sponsor will withstand the natural ups and downs of a career. When sponsors and agents see the athletes as nothing more than billboards for a logo, they are neglecting opportunities to aggressively market their brand to participants of a sport that are more than willing to pay up. Even the non-profits that make grants to athletes can approach the matter with a strategic, revenue-generating perspective, as we are starting to see in other sports (most notably soccer, where Livestrong has naming rights to Sporting FC’s stadium, and Qatar Foundation is the presenting sponsor of FC Barcelona). Rather than athletes living grant-to-grant and foundations dispensing money athlete-to-athlete, both parties could maximize the long-term value of the relationship by each determining their WIFM. Whether it’s an athlete-sponsor or athlete-foundation partnership, the two parties will benefit over the course of a long-term contract that is based not just on performance but on a range of ways in which the athlete can promote the brand.
Right now, in the world of professional track and field, we are all losers – at least from a business and financial perspective. Sponsors and agents are failing to exploit the marketability and value creation potential of track and field athletes and the sport of track and field. Athletes receive contracts that are solely performance-based and built on range-of-the-moment assessments and expectations, and therefore are equally shortsighted in their financial structure – yet they feel lucky to get them. Further downstream, sports entertainment consumers see a product that is incomplete, under-developed, and as a result, less than satisfying.
Those of us closest to the athletes – coaches, agents, club managers and race directors – as well as the athletes themselves have to make it blatantly obvious to the sponsors that their adherence to the current model is costing them revenue. This is our responsibility for the future, just as it has been our shortcoming in the past that we did not present our athletes as the value creators that they are. Until track and field learns to speak the language of business, we can’t expect to move off of Amateur Island and into the realm of professional sports.