Here’s Why It Feels Like Every Elite Runner Is Changing Sponsors Right Now
January marks the season when many professional runners announce sponsorship changes. Here’s why that’s important, and what it means for the future of running.
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Tim Tollefson celebrated the new year shoveling a lot of snow, dreaming about a summer of possibility, and changing his shoes.
After six years with Hoka, Tollefson, 37, the well-known elite American ultrarunner from Mammoth Lakes, California, signed a new multi-year sponsorship deal with Craft. It might seem like a curious move this time of the year, but, in reality, most athlete sponsorship contracts in running are one-year partnerships that end on December 31. That typically gives brands the upper hand in these situations because they can have an easy out whenever an athlete doesn’t have a great year of results, or they no longer fit with their marketing goals. It always comes down to the money, though sometimes it’s in the athlete’s best interests to start fresh, to leverage their recent results and social media platform to find a better deal with a brand that better fits their racing goals.
Because there are more brands partnering runners than ever before, and presumably more sponsorship money available, top-tier distance runners who are still at the top of their game—like Tim Tollefson, Allie McLaughlin, Josette Norris, Paige Stoner, David Ribich, Dani Moreno, Erin Clark, Natosha Rogers, Colin Bennie, Dillon Maggard, Camille Herron, and others—have been able to seek out new opportunities to continue their careers with the necessary support.
The terms of the newly signed deals haven’t been disclosed, but there is a huge range in pay for professional distance runners—roughly $15,000 on the low end for a partially sponsored trail runner without significant international results, to $300,000 at the high end for a top-tier marathoner with Marathon Majors podium results. Certainly that means some live a life of luxury, while others are forced to work part-time jobs and pinch pennies to get by.
But there are also often signing bonuses, as well as premiums paid for earning appearance fees, major victories, global medals, podium finishes, breaking records, and other incentives, so running faster can be a fast track to a boost in income. However, most athletes are considered independent contractors, and many have to pay for their own healthcare, body work, and travel, depending on the details of their brand partnership.
“You start getting an idea of who’s going to be available, for one reason or other, in the last few months of the year, and that’s when brands and athletes start talking,” said Mike McManus, Hoka’s global sports marketing director. “As an athlete, you’re as valuable as whatever money anyone wants to give you, but it’s a process and all about negotiating. Sometimes you can match the money being offered; sometimes it just doesn’t make sense for the partnership.”
What Tollefson liked about Craft was similar to what he liked about Hoka six years ago—an upstart brand ready to make an impact in trail racing, its new line of trail shoes, and the trail community overall. Craft sees Tollefson as a runner with name recognition and several significant race wins in the past three years, not to mention a leader in the sport who started the Mammoth Trail Fest last year.
“This [new partnership with Craft] has reignited my deep passion for the sport and has reminded me of the things I want to accomplish,” he said. “It’s almost like a start-up situation led by passionate people who are excited to make an impact and want to support the people who are along for the journey. Curiosity drives me and I like a challenge. I know I am going to have some lifetime achievements ahead.”
More Big Moves in Trail and Ultra
After an extraordinary year of racing on the trails, Allie McLaughlin changed from On to Hoka as her primary sponsor. The charismatic 32-year-old from Colorado Springs won the daunting Mount Marathon race in Alaska, placed among the top five in several Golden Trail Series races, and won both gold and bronze medals in the inaugural World Mountain and Trail Running World Championships in Thailand. She’ll be representing the U.S. in this year’s World Championships in Austria, in June, while also returning to the OCC 54K race, as part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) festival in Chamonix, in August.
“It was really interesting to see how much trail means to them [Hoka], not only with their sponsorship of UTMB, but in general how they’re helping push the sport forward,” said McLaughlin, who had been with On since 2021. “There are a lot of reasons I like what Hoka is doing, but ultimately, the emphasis they’re putting on the team and their athletes is really exciting.”
Other trail and ultrarunners who have switched brands include Erin Clark, who finished 7th at last year’s CCC, who left Hoka to sign with Nike, even though her partner, Adam Peterman, the 2022 Western States 100 champion and ultrarunning world champion, re-signed with Hoka.
Spanish trail runner Sara Alonso has changed from Salomon to ASICS, while Craft also signed Arlen Glick, a prolific 100-mile specialist from Ohio, and Mimmi Kotka, a Swedish runner with numerous podium finishes in Europe, to its team. Meanwhile, previously unsponsored American trail runners Tabor Hemming (Salomon) and Dan Curts (Brooks) are among those who have signed new deals.
Meanwhile, Dani Moreno, a world-class mountain runner from Mammoth Lakes, California, and Camille Herron, a record-setting ultrarunner from Warr Acres, Oklahoma, are both also leaving Hoka for yet-to-be-announced brands that offered better deals.
Bigger Transitions for Road and Track Runners
For track athletes and marathon runners, a change of shoe brands is often a more involved change, mostly because it often means changing training groups and coaches, too.
For example, Josette Norris, the fifth-place finisher in the 1,500m at the 2022 World Athletics Indoor Championships, not only switched from Reebok to On, but she left Reebok’s Virginia-based Boston Track Club, and coach Chris Fox, and moved west to Boulder, Colorado, to join the On Athletics Club under Dathan Ritzenhein.
Similarly, David Ribich, one of the best American mile runners on the track last year, switched from the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts track club to the Nike-backed Union Athletics Club under Pete Julian.
Colin Bennie, the top American finisher in the Boston Marathon in 2021—previously with Reebok but unsponsored last year—signed with the Brooks Beasts but will be training on his own in San Francisco. Dillon Maggard, who was second at the U.S. cross country championships and ninth in 3,000m at the indoor world championships in 2022, is returning to Seattle to train with the Brooks Beasts, after being unsponsored last year. Natosha Rogers, who was a finalist in the 10,000m at last summer’s World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, has changed from Brooks to Puma, but will continue to train on her own in Colorado. Middle-distance runner Cruz Culpepper, after short stints at the University of Washington and the University of Mississippi, gave up his remaining college eligibility to sign with Hoka and its NAZ Elite (NAZ) team.
Last summer, Paige Stoner left the Virginia-based Reebok group and Fox, her longtime coach, to train in Flagstaff, Arizona, partially because she didn’t have other marathoners to train with on a regular basis in Charlottesville. She increased her volume last fall training with Sarah Pagano and Emily Durgin and won the U.S. championship at the California International Marathon in December with a course record of 2:26:02, her debut at the distance.
In January, Stoner parlayed that into a new deal with Hoka, as she also joined the Flagstaff-based Northern Arizona Elite and will be training with a group of strong marathoners—including Aliphine Tuliamuk, Alice Wright, Kellyn Taylor, and the recently unretired Stephanie Bruce—under the guidance of coaches Alan Culpepper, Ben Rosario, and Jenna Wreiden.
“I was especially drawn to NAZ because they have proven to be a powerhouse in the marathon, which will likely be my primary focus in the years to come,” Stoner said. “I believe the team has all of the tools it takes to compete at the highest level in the sport, and I am eager to begin this new chapter.”
Triathletes are also getting support. After the record-breaking win of Norwegian Gustav Iden at the 2022 Ironman World Championships, On has bolstered its presence in triathlon with the signing of American star Chelsea Sodaro, the 2022 women’s Ironman champion, Olympic champion Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway, and 2022 Ironman 70.3 World Championship silver medalist Paula Findlay of Canada.
Learning the Ropes
For track and road running, the path to success for elite-level, post-collegiate athletes typically includes earning a sponsorship right after the track season in June and joining a sponsored training group and coach. From there, it’s all about improving times and placing high in U.S. championship races, with hopes of becoming fast enough to earn a spot in elite track meets in Europe or one of the World Marathon Majors.
But most road and track runners have agents to help smooth out those transitions, whereas most trail runners do not. Plus, trail running is considerably more unstructured, with a greater range of race distances and a lot more unknown variables. That means the challenge of figuring out what opportunities exist on the trails—what races to run, how to train on trails, what gear is needed, how to race considerably longer distances, and how to attract sponsors—often requires them to learn on the fly.
Those are all reasons professional trail runner Andy Wacker recently formed The Trail Team, a non-profit organization that will help guide young runners along the path becoming successful, potentially sponsored trail runners, while also playing a role in boosting the level of competitive trail running in the U.S.
The Trail Team put out a call for candidates to become one of six inaugural team members in 2023. Once selected this spring, those athletes will go through a training camp, receive a stipend, get continued mentorship from Wacker, McLaughlin, Adam Peterman, and Grayson Murphy, and prepare for a variety of U.S. races.
“I’ve reached out to a lot of young athletes and the main thing I found is they need a mentor,” said Wacker, a Salomon-sponsored athlete. “They don’t necessarily need a coach—a lot of them have a college coach that they might continue working with—but they need someone who is going to help them with all of their questions and translate everything to trail running.
“It’s still really hard to be an individually sponsored athlete, and I think it’s hard for a young athlete to get recognition and build their brand, so we’re hoping to help with that,” he added. “There are more participants and more excitement than ever in trail running, but there are also growing pains. So there are a lot of ways we think we can help so they don’t have to figure it out on their own.”
Like Wacker, Tollefson is one of those athletes who did have to figure it out on his own. He was a good runner in high school and college, but he never qualified for the state meet and never earned All-American honors. But, with a relentless work ethic, he’s become one of the most successful American trail runners of the past decade, having placed second at the CCC 100K in Chamonix, in 2015, and twice placed third in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 171K in 2016 and 2017.
Although his personal race plans aren’t finalized yet, those deals are allowing him to step away from his career as a physical therapist and become fully immersed in running for the first time in his career.
“All of us athletes are multidimensional; we’re more than just a pretty face rocking a bib,” Tollefson said. “Everyone has a unique story. I think there are more brands interested in telling those stories, and Craft is definitely one of them. Some people have written me off, but I’m confident my best races are ahead of me. Craft believes in me, and I feel like I need that belief to get the best out of myself.”