The USATF Rules Committee voted unanimously yesterday on Rule Change 18, which, upon approval at the general meeting on Sunday, will remove the USATF’s sponsorship logo restrictions. This will conclude a battle that has spawned numerous Facebook groups, hashtags, conspiracy theories and, for better or worse, mainstream media attention for our sport. But come Monday morning, the operative question will be: “OK, now what?”
Perhaps the most dramatic consequence of this rule change will be that athletes and the sport now have one less excuse to explain away the sport’s professional plight. People will no longer be able to say “Well we’d love to have more sponsorships – and we totally would – but USATF has these idiot rules, so…..” Simply because sponsors can now have their logos seen on athletes’ uniforms (or bodies) does not mean they will be beating down our doors to buy singlet space. We still have a long way to go to convince sponsors – big and small, global or local, traditional or innovative – of the value creation potential of track & field athletes and of the sport. Just because a company can sponsor an athlete does not mean they should unless we, the ones selling our athletic product, can make it a worthwhile venture for them. Otherwise, it’s not a sponsorship as much as it is a charitable donation (and not even a tax-deductible one, at that), and that won’t convince anyone that track and field is a professional sport.
The pressure will now be on the USATF (HA!), TFAA (hope!), the athletes themselves (help!) and race directors (um, hello?) to give the sponsors reasons to collaborate with the sport. Prime real estate on the marquee athlete’s uniform will not produce return on investment for a sponsor if there are no competitions for the athlete, or no fans watching the event. A sponsor will have no desire to link their brand and their corporate identity to an athlete that has no personal brand, an adverse personal brand or no sense of media savvy and presence. And if the sport as a whole looks like a losing proposition, sponsors will be more eager to get behind the 4th iteration of a professional women’s soccer league than to subsidize track’s continued existence on Amateur Island.
I imagine there will be some recalcitrant old hats at USATF who would relish nothing more than sometime next year listening to an athlete coming to the USATF for money, and responding by leaning back, tenting their fingers a la C. Montgomery Burns and saying “But we removed the logo restrictions. Wasn’t that supposed to make you a professional?” No, Monty, ending the logo restrictions removed a needless roadblock on our athletes’ and sport’s path to professionalism. Now that the road is clear we are free to create and sell value to sponsors and fans, and make money for our athletes and our sport. In the large scheme of things, getting these rules changed will have been the easy part.