By Jordan Kobritz
“A principle is not a principle until it costs you money.” —Bill Bernbach, Founder of ad agency Doyle Dane and Bernbach
Nick Symmonds can relate to Bernbach’s statement. A two-time Olympian, Symmonds won the 800 meters at the U.S. Trials earlier this month which automatically qualified him for a spot on this country’s World Championship team. But while the team is currently competing in Beijing, Nick is home watching the competition from his couch.
Symmonds’ predicament is a direct consequence of his principles. As a condition of participation in the Worlds, USA Track & Field (USATF), this country’s governing body for track and field athletes, required all participants to sign a “Statement of Conditions.” The statement requires all athletes to wear “designated team uniforms at official team functions,” which on its face isn’t an unreasonable requirement. But to USATF, team functions apparently include every waking hour from the time athletes boarded the plane to China until they return to the States. Their definition covers not only training sessions, press conferences, competitions, and award ceremonies but sightseeing jaunts and lounging around the hotel. And, get this, photos on Facebook.
The rules certainly make sense from the USATF’s perspective and that of its sponsor, Nike. The apparel giant has been the organization’s prime financial supporter for 25 years, and thanks to a new 23-year deal that takes effect in 2018, will continue as the exclusive apparel provider through 2040, for a fee of $20 million per year.
The conundrum for Symmonds is that like most track and field athletes he has his own sponsor, Brooks, which provides the financial support that allows him to train full time. Without that support, Symmonds wouldn’t have made the World Team. But the terms of the USATF deal with Nike undermines the value of Symmonds’ deal with Brooks. Why would they provide financial support for an athlete’s training and competition in lower level events without the potential marketing benefits that would flow from exposure at World Championship events? Without the latter, Brooks might subsidize the former but at a much lower rate, making it even more difficult for an athlete to attain world class status.
USATF spokesperson Jill Geer defends the practice. “It’s very common in all sports to have star athletes whose personal contracts conflict with their teams’,” she said. “Steph Curry is with Under Armour, and LeBron James is with Nike. Both men played in Adidas uniforms in the NBA Finals last season.” True enough. But what Geer conveniently ignored was that unlike track and field athletes, athletes in team sports are represented by a union and most receive a share of overall league revenues. NBA players, for example, receive approximately 50 percet of league revenue.
Track and field athletes are independent contractors. Without representation they are left to fend for themselves in “negotiating”—if you can call it that—with their governing body. If they were treated similarly to NBA players, Symmonds and his fellow competitors would divvy up half of the $43 million the USATF earns annually, or $21.5 million. But based on a study conducted by Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, the USATF returns only $3.5 million—or approximately 8 percent of the organization’s gross revenue—to the athletes without whom the organization wouldn’t exist. And athletes in other individual professional sports receive between 25 and 35 per cent of their organization’s gross revenue.
Symmonds does not contest the USATF’s requirement that athletes compete in Nike gear. However, he believes that the more stringent and all-encompassing constraints that prevent athletes from providing any exposure for their individual sponsors is too restrictive. Furthermore, those requirements are counterproductive to the goals of the organization.
Symmonds is not alone in his beliefs, but so far he is the only track and field athlete willing to take a stand, one that will hinder his future earning power and his ability to earn a spot on next year’s Olympic team.
Speaking of the Olympics, their sponsorship rules are similar to those of USATF. The organizations want it both ways: They don’t want to be responsible for the training expenses athletes incur but they demand the benefits from that training. That’s the classic definition of wanting both ends and the middle. Here’s hoping more athletes join Symmonds and take a stand based on principle.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.