Senior contributing editor Peter Vigneron comments on the curious case of athlete sponsorship.
Last week, two items in the (glacially) evolving world of sponsorship and professional distance running caught my attention: Lauren Fleshman’s departure from Nike to Oiselle, and Bobby Mack’s unsponsored win at Scotland’s Great Edinburgh Cross Country meet.
It would be a mistake to draw too many comparisons between Fleshman and Mack, but an obvious one is that Fleshman is 31, pregnant, and doesn’t plan to compete this year, and Mack is racing great but can’t get a shoe contract. This seemed odd to me, and my first thought was that it is somehow a reflection of marketability—that Fleshman knows something about branding, and that Mack doesn’t. And at first glance that seemed right: Fleshman runs an energy bar business, regularly updates a website, and has a big presence on social media. If Bobby Mack does any of those things, I’m unaware of it.
Still, when Fleshman announced that she would be leaving Nike in late December, she noted that several years ago, Nike started linking contracts more closely to performance. “This philosophy,” she wrote, “makes it easier logistically to manage a budget and create a consistent standard for 200+ athletes and angry agents, and maybe it’s the only way you can manage a group that large. It is undoubtedly a fair system.” She also wrote that it “creates a culture of fear and insecurity.”
On Tuesday, I spoke with Global Athletics’s Rich Kenah, who mentioned that Tyson Gay, one of the highest-profile and highly paid sprinters in the world, is also one of the most laid back. And of course for all the Nick Symmonds-type runners, I can think of ten others who are quiet and serious and don’t own tanning salons, and who nevertheless do pretty okay. So if Nike pays only for performance, and Tyson Gay ends up in Gillete ads, how much does marketability really matter when we’re talking about shoe contracts?
Fleshman’s story (which echos Amy Yoder Begley’s experience with Nike this fall) certainly seems to make sense—she wanted a less paranoid environment, and she won’t be racing for awhile—but it also strikes me as an endorsement of Fleshman’s continued prospects as a competitive runner, and not necessarily her media awareness. She did run 15:00 for 5,000m in 2011, after all, and if Nike is as hard-nosed as she makes them out to be, they would’ve cut her loose if they didn’t think she could still perform.
But it doesn’t help explain why Bobby Mack can’t get a deal. Mack is the 2012 USATF cross country champion, a 27:53 10,000 runner, and just won a relatively high-profile European cross country race. If Nike pays for performance, and it’s not an outlier among shoe companies, what’s up?
Three things. (Just watch, of course—as soon as I write this, he’ll get signed.)
1. Mack is running events and races that are a little bit obscure. Sure, he won a national cross country title in 2012, but not in a World Championships year. And sure, he won a USATF road 8K title, but how many of you can name more than one or two past winners of that event?
2. The retail economy isn’t great, which means the major sponsors don’t have much cash to spend. That isn’t likely to change any time soon, and there’s not much any runner can do about it.
3. Mack wasn’t on anybody’s radar when he graduated from college in 2008, and by the time he started running well last year, most companies had gone through their budgets in preparation for the Olympics. Which is to say, a 27:53 10K PR is worth a lot more money two years before the Olympics than four months before, and even less the year after the Olympics, which is always a recession period for endorsements deals.
Could Mack get a contract if he was more marketable, or if he was able to tell a compelling story about himself? Anything is possible, but it’s hard to imagine that Tweeting a lot trumps a couple U.S. titles and fast PRs. Much better is to graduate from college with a nice resume of NCAA wins, and even better is to do it two years before the Olympics. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Mack runs well again at the USATF Cross-Country Championships next month in St. Louis. And here’s to hoping he does.
About The Author:
Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterVigneron.