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Revolt of the Athletes

800_m_2010_USA_Track_&_Field_Championships
Photo of Nick Symmonds courtesy Phil Roeder/Wikimedia

For years, U. S. Track and Field has imposed strict rules on how athletes can represent corporate sponsors on their jerseys. Permitted logo size is small—a maximum total area of 40 square centimeters—and athletes can't have more than one logo.

As the economy has tanked and sponsorships have dried up, athletes have gotten increasingly pissed about the rules. That anger came to a head on Friday at an USATF Athlete Advisory Committee meeting in St. Louis.

Here's the (brief) series of events that lead to Friday's confrontation, and possibly to a sea change in the financing of track and field.

In October, U.S. 800-meter champion Nick Symmonds published a blog post on Flotrack.com titled "I'm Tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport," in which he argued that uniform restrictions prevent athletes from signing more endorsement deals.

On November 7, an official at the New York City Marathon forced two-time U.S. 5,000-meter champion Lauren Fleshman to remove from her arms and legs temporary tattoos promoting her energy-bar company, Picky Bars, minutes before the race. The removal was, by all accounts, abrasive. 

Three weeks ago, Club Northwest team manager Becky Gillespie Peters learned that USATF planned to enforce its uniform rules at the upcoming club cross country championships. Club Northwest's uniforms did not conform. Gillespie Peters was displeased

What's this all about, and why now?

On Friday, athletes were expected to demand more logo freedom, in part because the down economy has taken a whack out of the salaries they are paid to endorse shoe companies. The athletes' argument, somewhat simplified, is that they are most visible and most marketable when they race. With the Olympics looming and track about to get more national media attention, a change in rules could mean a lot more money.

If you're a middle-of-the-road distance runner, say a 28-minute 10K guy, you might have a sponsorship with Nike or Adidas that pays a modest salary in the low five figures and covers your gear. (Maybe more, maybe less. If you can run 40 seconds faster for 10K you'll make six figures.) Theoretically, you might also be able to pull in more money representing PowerBar or GU, which don't compete with Nike or Adidas. But you can't put that PowerBar or GU logo on your jersey when you race.

USATF and the major shoe companies—Nike and Adidas, and to a lesser extent New Balance, Brooks, and Saucony—have enjoyed this structure. USATF negotiates sponsorship deals with major corporations, most recently with Visa, to operate meets and pay prize money to national champions. Naturally, Visa would prefer not to see Discover's logo on Nick Symmonds's racing singlet, which USATF ensures by enforcing uniform rules. And Nike and Adidas don't really want to see Discover or PowerBar on their jerseys, either—to a sponsor, a single logo, even a small one, is more valuable than several.

At Friday's meeting, Nike's John Capriotti and several other shoe-company reps walked out when they learned it was being streamed online. Track announcer Ato Bolden warned the athletes on Twitter not to bite the hands (presumably USATF, Nike, and Adidas) that feed them. Agent Rich Kenah gave a condescending, and factually incorrect, lesson in the laws of supply and demand. There was, at least while the live feed was operating, little actual discussion.

And then on Saturday, USATF announced that it would loosen its uniform restrictions for club nationals, word leaked that the IAAF will allow a second corporate logo at meets in 2012, and, more important, it turns out that those USATF uniform restrictions aren't actually in the USATF rulebook. The organization is now expected to get rid of the uniform logo restrictions altogether beginning January 1. This, as Letsrun.com's Weldon Johnson notes, is "[t]remendous progress." 

Who knew revolution could be so easy?

—Peter Vigneron
@PeterVigneron



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