In April, the news broke that Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track and Field, earned over four million dollars in 2018. Although roughly three quarters of this sum could be attributed to “deferred compensation” (bonuses, retirement funds) it wasn’t a great look for the non-profit governing body of a sport where even top-ranked professionals can struggle to make a living. While USATF has secured eye-popping sponsorship deals during Siegel’s tenure, the extent to which the increase in revenue has benefitted the athletes remains up for debate.
Of course, if your mission in life is to get rich, becoming a professional runner is probably not the shrewdest career choice. Even if you’re good enough to obtain a coveted sponsorship deal from a shoe company (still the primary source of income for most successful pros) the deck may still be stacked against you. Case in point: when Reebok-sponsored distance runner Kemoy Campbell was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack while rabbiting a race at the 2019 Millrose Games, his girlfriend started a GoFundMe requesting $200,000 to help cover his medical expenses. (At the time, Ray Flynn, Campbell’s agent, told me that Campbell only had “very basic” health coverage.) Meanwhile, last year, former Nike athletes Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, and Allyson Felix publicly discussed Nike’s policy of freezing athlete contracts during pregnancy. Even some of the biggest stars in U.S. running seemed to be getting a raw deal.
But perhaps there’s another way. On Tuesday, the Boston-based running apparel brand Tracksmith presented what it is describing as “a new model for athlete partnership.” The company, which was founded in 2014, announced that it had just hired pro runners Mary Cain and Nick Willis as full-time, salaried employees. Willis, 37, is a two-time Olympic medalist for New Zealand in the 1,500-meters, while Cain, 24, won a gold medal in the 3,000-meters in the 2014 World Junior Championships. Both will be joining Tracksmith to do some form of community outreach—Willis’s official job title is “Athlete Experience Manager”; Cain’s is “New York Community Manager.” Pressed on what, specifically, his new job with the company will entail, Willis told me that he would be organizing events, programming, coaching, and running-related content. (For cynics who might argue that 37 is pretty old for a miler, know that Willis is the defending champion in the 5th Avenue Mile.)
At first glance, hiring two professional athletes might seem counterintuitive for a company that has built its image around the idea of the amateur runner. (The brand’s aesthetic might be described as Chariots of Fire meets Ivy League nostalgia.) But by giving Willis and Cain roles within the company, Tracksmith is effectively re-conferring both runners with amateur status. Think of it as “going pro,” but in reverse.
“This is first and foremost about adding two great employees to our team, which in turn provides them support and freedom from the restrictions of a traditional sponsorship deal,” Tracksmith CEO Matt Taylor told me in an email. Although Willis and Cain will compete for Tracksmith, they are not under any obligation to run a certain number of meets or to hit certain time standards. Technically, they are not under any obligation to run at all—how they wish to continue their athletic career is up to them.
“Being employed, as opposed to just being a contracted professional athlete, gets me a seat at the table,” Willis told me. “The big thing for me is that it not only takes the pressure off from an income standpoint—it’s like the purpose of your day hasn’t been wasted if your race doesn’t go well.”
Cain agrees that the monomaniacal focus of the pro athlete life can feel oppressive. She says that the Tracksmith offer was appealing because it allowed her to train as an elite runner while simultaneously pursuing a career where it didn’t matter how fast she ran laps around an oval. Given how long she has been in the national spotlight, it is easy to forget that Cain is only 24. She holds a degree in business administration with a marketing concentration from Fordham University. In a way, the Tracksmith gig would make sense for her even if she didn’t happen to be one of the most famous runners in America.
Not that her fame is irrelevant here. In hiring Cain, Tracksmith is very consciously associating their brand with an athlete who has recently emerged as one of the more prominent critics of the dark sides of the professional running scene. Last year, Cain made headlines when she accused Alberto Salazar, her former coach at the Nike Oregon Project, of emotional and physical abuse. In claims that have been corroborated by fellow Oregon Project members, Cain says that Salazar constantly pressured her to lose weight, which ultimately had disastrous consequences for both her health and race performances.
Cain’s story, along with Salazar receiving a four-year coaching suspension for doping violations last September, has prompted criticism of what is frequently referred to as a “win-at-all-costs” culture—one that Cain believes is perpetuated by an athlete compensation system which only values race results.
“In creating these contracts in which performance is the only way in which your worth is defined, I feel it just opens opportunities for athletes feeling pressure to do things that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise,” Cain told me. While she acknowledged that there are many runners who are able to thrive in the current system without resorting to illicit measures, she nonetheless believes that it is in the sport’s best interest to invest in athletes in ways that aren’t solely performance-based.
“There are some athletes who have maybe never cracked the top three at a U.S. champs, but have this amazing ability to connect with younger runners and are such an important part in what running culture really is,” Cain says. “They are not really given the same credit as someone who only really leaves their house to run and wins all the time and almost doesn’t really give back in some sort of altruistic way to the sport.” (For what it’s worth, these “community manager” roles sound awfully similar to the “brand ambassador” positions that have popped up across various sports brands in recent years. But it remains an unusual arrangement in the running world.)
Of course, a die-hard Galen Rupp fan might argue that one way to “give back” to the sport is through success in competition. And while Tracksmith can perhaps be lauded for finding a way to sponsor runners without burdening them with the pressure of delivering results on the track, at the end of the day the company’s main purpose is to sell products by telling an appealing story—not to produce Olympic champions. One could argue that the same holds true for Nike, but, then again, Nike’s whole image is predicated on sponsoring the best athletes on the planet—not people like you and me.
But perhaps Nike’s way is a losing proposition for a sport where fewer people pay attention to the professional side of things anyway. Maybe the nebulous concept of relatability is more important here than the distinctly unrelatable feeling of being a constant winner. In terms of their athletic achievements, Cain and Willis obviously aren’t all that relatable either, but they both have a history of being transparent about their personal struggles. When you have a win-at-all-costs image to maintain, such transparency is harder to come by.
“If winning is the only option every time, it’s creating this very skewed view of what it means to be a competitor and what it means to be a person,” Cain says. “You almost can’t learn from or appreciate your failures because they are so devastating. It’s just all these opportunities are suddenly falling out of your grasp.”