Leveling the Paying Field for Track and Field Athletes

The track and field Olympic Trials for Team USA wrapped up in Eugene, Oregon on Sunday, July 10th. Oregon and Southwest Washington will be well represented, with 26 athletes – from the University of Oregon, The Nike Oregon Project, The Bowerman Track Club, Oregon Track Club Elite, Barlow High School, Skyview High School, and the U.S. Army World Class Athlete program – as part of the 2016 Olympic team.

Track and Field’s Appeal

By some accounts, track and field is the second most popular sport in the world behind football – or soccer as it’s known in the U.S. Over the course of the modern Olympic games, there have been many famous track and field athletes from the U.S. Jesse Owens garners the earliest mention, though Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis, Florence Joyner-Griffifth, Gayle Devers, and Michael Johnson are among the familiar former Olympic medalists. Even Steve Prefontaine, a name synonymous with track and field in Oregon, competed without medaling before his untimely death.

The Pay Gap

While we in the Pacific Northwest have a lot to celebrate with the success of local track and field athletes, many of these athletes are struggling financially just to be able to compete. Hammer thrower A.G. Kruger piled his family into an RV for the trip from South Dakota to Eugene so they could watch him compete; it was the only way for his family to make the trip. When asked about her financial situation, hammer thrower Britney Henry said that she is in debt. Ken Goe of The Oregonian, in one of his articles covering the 10-day Olympic trials, states that most track & field athletes are in debt.

Despite their successes, track and field athletes today are among the lowest-paid athletes on the U.S. Olympic team, according to Austin Meek of The Register-Guard. Track and field athletes who made it onto the Olympic team will receive a $10,000 dollar stipend from USATF. Compare that to the cost of living just about anywhere in the U.S., or the cost of travel to Rio.

Why does this disparity exist?

It doesn’t appear to be lack of money at USA Track & Field (USATF) – which has increased its budget from $16 million to $36 million since 2012, through the efforts of its CEO, Max Siegel. Some current and former athletes think Siegel is part of the problem.

It’s not for lack of a significant sponsor. Nike has a commitment through 2030 to provide some $400 million in sponsorship to USATF. There are some current track and field athletes have refused to sign endorsement contracts with Nike because of restrictive contract provisions.

It’s not for lack of alternative sponsors, although the way these sponsors are treated by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and USATF doesn’t help the situation. Some of these alternative sponsors are not official sponsors of USOC or USATF, and they complain that USOC is refusing to allow any images of the sponsored athletes in their advertising. Oiselle CEO and founder Sally Bergesen has been vocal about her inability to capitalize on sponsorship deals with top female athletes.

Is the answer to the problem in marketing? Vin Lannana, President of Eugene’s TrackTown USA, thinks that athlete compensation needs to be addressed by making a larger pie – attracting more sponsors and fans.

It doesn’t help that there have been several doping scandals since the 1996 Olympic games – most recently implicating much of the Russian track and field team – that do not help the perception of track and field. And with Michael Phelps’ performance at the last two Olympics overshadowing most other U.S. Olympic achievements, it seems that USATF doesn’t have a compelling athlete to promote, either.

Marketing may not hold all of the answers. However, it seems to us that better marketing and promotion would help, and finding ways to partner with smaller sponsors will help the athletes in the long run.