Sally Bergesen. Runner. Writer. Mom. Designer.
CEO and Chief Rabblerouser at Oiselle.

Why 23 More Years of Nike-USATF is Bad for Our Sport

It was announced today that Nike and USATF have reached an agreement that extends Nike’s sponsorship of our sport’s governing body until the year 2040. For many of us fans, this is equivalent to a death sentence, an asphyxiation of the sport we love.

What’s weird is I was once a Nike girl.

Like many, I grew up idolizing the company. The athletes. The action. The cool commercials. The notion that you could be a rebel AND a hardcore “just do it” winner. I watched McEnroe provoke, Jordan fly, and Mia shoot. There was that Revolution TV spot that was amazing. It wasn’t pitching product…it was John Lennon singing about a movement; about the everyday athlete as modern hero. As you, and me, and us! Incredibly powerful. I wanted to know this company. I wanted to BE this company.

And then there were the shoes. Growing up, money was tight, but Nike usually made it to the cash register. First, the canvas low tops, and then the iconic Cortez. No doubt about it, I grew up groovin’ on Nike’s flair for sport and design. They were consistently fresh and classic. Even Spike Lee was onto it…”Yo Mike, what makes you the best player in the universe? It’s gotta be the shoes, right?!”

Fast forward to the college years, late 80s and early 90s. Still an avid fan, I could see Nike was going through growing pains. It was expanding like crazy but it was also being accused of poor workplace conditions in its factories. With success came the understandable problems; how to churn out an ever-growing demand for its goods with fair, non-exploitative labor practices.

At about this time, I moved to Seattle and got bit by the running bug for good. It became not only a part of my life, but my identity…connecting me to new friends, a community, and a pursuit (racing!) that filled my sails. I joined a local running club, I trained, I essentially started a love affair that is still going strong today. And through this love affair, I became deeply interested in the sport. Not only on the local level, but also on its biggest stage: elite track meets, major marathons, the European circuit, nationals, worlds, and of course, the Olympics.

And it was this love affair that would lead me to founding Oiselle: the business that would let me combine my two great passions in life: running and design. Yes, I was obsessed with creating more flattering apparel. But just like Nike had done before me, I wanted Oiselle to be about more than product. I wanted it to embody the spirit of running. That connectedness that we all feel when we run and move. And the sisterhood of empowerment.

And so even at Oiselle’s tiniest scale, we jumped into the race. Also in the run race was every other running brand you’ve heard of since the beginning of time. Of course, almost all of these companies are shoe companies. And if there’s one thing you should know about shoe companies, it’s that they don’t make their money on apparel. And in many ways, this lack of interest in great apparel has delivered our opportunity in a basket with a bow.

As our band of revelers got more into the industry side of our sport, working with athletes, attending high profile races, and creating sponsorships, I started learning some things. And many of them weren’t good; about the state of professional Track & Field, how it’s run, who’s running it…and who’s controlling it. Mind you, we weren’t on a witch-hunt, or looking for dirt. These items floated to the surface like dead fish from a murky pond:

Athletes were upset at our sport’s governing body, the USATF, over restrictive logo rules.

Leading US sprinter and Nike athlete, Nick Symmonds, was taking a stand against unfair rules that seemed to preclude pro T&F athletes from getting better sponsorship deals.

And athletes were distressed about the inability to get multiple sponsors. Per the USATF guidelines, logo usage is severely restricted.

 So why are the logo rules so strict?

The first salient point is that Nike and one other sponsor fund over half of the USATF budget. And with the agreement today, it looks like that relationship will be in place through 2040. This is not a donation, it is a paid sponsor rights agreement; the logo rules maintain Nike’s position as the dominant player in Track & Field. And so somehow Nike purchased not only the right to be the featured brand at USATF events, but also the right to reduce the branding of any of their competitors. The translation for you if you’re interested in sponsoring world-class athletes: you have just entered a no visibility zone in which your investment will be paid off with, um, nothing. Come on in…Track & Field welcomes you! 

 So what’s the result? What’s the fallout of this lockdown on the industry?

USATF only minimally funds US track and field athletes (their entire yearly budget is less than $20 million, of which a large chunk is spent on T&F events). So athletes have to come up with their own funding if they want to have a chance. And finding significant sponsorship dollars is a long shot at best. With Nike’s USATF agreement and lockdown on its own competition, it can hand pick the top 1-3% of the national talent pool, and leave the rest to subsist on annual salaries in the $15,000 range.

Other major shoe companies have been looking for ways to increase their support of athletes, but they are disadvantaged, bound by the USATF restrictions. 

Athletes who do get contracts, will often find them lacking in humanity. Retroactive reductions if you get injured, being cut without notice, and yep, being bounced if you get pregnant are all common practice. Former Nike athlete Amy Yoder Begley’s Blog gives some details.

Or learn how our own pro runner Lauren Fleshman (when she ran for Nike) was told that if she didn’t remove the temporary tattoo of her own company, PickyBars, before the start of the 2011 NYC Marathon, she would be disqualified.

Or read what it’s like to have run 5th at the Olympics and find yourself shopping for a race kit at American Apparel because your sponsorship is in limbo, like what happened with Alysia Montano.

Interested in getting exposure for your brand at the Olympic Trials in Eugene (where the US Olympic Teams are selected)? Think again. When they flew a plane over Hayward Field towing a “run happy” banner, the Brooks CEO and his team got tossed out of Hayward Field.

Or watch the so-ridiculous-it’s-funny video we did on how to create a USATF-compliant singlet.

Win the US Indoor 3K Champs like Gabe Grunewald of Brooks did, but have USATF officials change the results due to Nike pressure. And have Alberto Salazar, reputedly one of our nation’s great coaches, go free from accountability or penalty following verbal and physical abuse at the same event.

From where we sit, it’s not the fairness factor that gets me worked up. After all, every competitive market has dominant players, newcomers, established rules, and practices that favor, well yes, the winners. I get that. I even relish it; we love to compete. And it’s not that I believe the company is somehow evil. I know first hand that many, many of its employees love the sport of Track & Field.

What gets me is that when you put all the pieces together, and look at Nike as a business (how and where they make their money), the deal is this: Nike doesn’t need Track & Field to thrive. And in fact, in terms of warding off competition, it’s better off keeping the sport small and hooked up to the Beaverton life support system. This preserves their control of Track & Field’s past (the waffle shoe!), present (any national or major event), and future (‘til death do us part, or 2040, whichever comes first).

How do we know Nike doesn’t need Track & Field to thrive? Look no further than the company’s annual report. The company relies very little on the sport for its financial success. They have a projected revenue of $28-$30 billion in 2015, and their running revenue is estimated at just 10% of that. What is Track & Field to Nike? It’s a cornice. A decorative element. A flourish that celebrates a now-distant Revolution.

So what now? What do we do about it?

Even though this is a messed up situation, super fans still believe. We want nothing more than to see our sport grow, and for our athletes to be rewarded for their hard work. I know that Oiselle would jump at the chance to be more involved, spend more money, and invest in more athletes if the end of the rainbow was some visibility. I know a lot of companies feel that way.

First and foremost, all athlete and sponsors should join and support the TFAA. This is a neutral athlete union, non-biased by any one company or source of funding. The TFAA is working hard to put athletes back in front where they belong.

Other “what ifs” to consider…

- Open up the USATF sponsorship opportunity to bidders.  Why has this negotiation been private, out of the view of athletes and the TFAA?
- Allow sponsors to compete fairly for advertising and athletes.
- Establish a business driven entity, like the NFL or NBA, that governs the sport, and creates fair bidding practices and collective bargaining agreements.
- Have that entity invest in post-collegiate athletes, and allow sponsors to bid on them.
- Drop logo restrictions to encourage multiple-sponsor endorsements for athletes, to increase income potential
- Improve contracts to de-emphasize athlete as performance machine, and reward performance plus factors such as brand building, community outreach, mentoring, etc.
- Provide higher profile marketing opportunities for athletes to build their own brand recognition.
- Foster industry rivalries; the last good one we had was Dan vs. Dave, over 20 years ago!
- Reinvent what a track meet can be…music, announcing, beer gardens; the sport could learn a lot from cyclo-cross. Currently, USATF events are run like antiquated polo matches, complete with blazers and hats. 

If Nike and the governing bodies were willing to consider some of this, to let down the drawbridge and work with fellow fans, there’s no telling how far we could take it. Anything’s possible. I don’t want to go overboard, but hell, I might even become a Nike girl again (for the shoes!)

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