(Today, we feature a column by guest blogger Ben Rosario)
On February 2 I had the extreme pleasure to serve as meet director for the USA Cross Country Championships in Saint Louis, and we were fortunate to have one of the most talented fields for that particular event in a long, long time. The members of our local organizing committee worked their butts off to promote the likes of Chris Derrick, Shalane Flanagan, Deena Kastor, Dathan Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp and more. I’m biased, but I think we did a pretty darn good job, and though it’s difficult to give an exact number, we certainly had at least a couple thousand fans out on the course that day. That said I believe it could have been even better. I think if the thousands upon thousands of casual runners knew more about the professional side of the sport then having those athletes in their own backyard would have been an absolute can’t miss event.
Earlier this week the Bank of America Chicago Marathon announced that Dathan Ritzenhein, who owns the #3 all-time marathon in U.S. history, will be back to run the storied windy city race on October 13. That’s great news and I’m happy for the folks at Chicago and I’m happy for Dathan. They got a valuable commodity that will bring attention to their event and he will be compensated thusly, I’m sure.
My pet peeve is this; why can’t we find out how much he is getting as an appearance fee? I am a sports junkie and I’ve probably read a thousand articles about professional athletes signing their first contract, signing as a free agent or being traded, etc. and in each and every one I see something to the effect of , “The deal is reportedly worth $x,xxx,xxx.” And you know why we see that? We see it because people want to know. It is just one of the many things that makes these athletes larger than life to the rest of us. It is what puts them on a pedestal where granted, we sometimes try to knock them down, but they are up there nonetheless.
And yet we continue in our sport, even in the year 2013, to try and seem amateur. It’s leftover from the 60s and 70s and the days when runners would have to get paid under the table or risk their Olympic eligibility. News flash; we don’t have to do that anymore! I think we’ve made a huge mistake in this industry, and I was guilty of it during my days as a running store owner, of trying to make guys like Ritz seem like he’s just like “you.”
We tell people that they feel the same things he feels during a marathon and that’s what separates our sport from all those others. Well guess what…that ain’t true. What it feels like to run 2:07 is absolutely nothing like what it feels to run four hours and you know what…that’s okay. We can idolize the 2:07 guy and still admire and respect our friends, our neighbors, or our customers who run four hours. They are not mutually exclusive. The model is out there folks. Walk into any sporting goods store and go to the football section, then the basketball section, th en the soccer section, etc. All you’ll see is jersey after jersey of famous players. Look at television ratings and see how NFL football completely rules on Sundays, Monday nights and now even Thursday nights. Sure we might talk about how these guys are overpaid prima donnas but we love every minute of it.
So what are we so afraid of in our sport?
Are we afraid message boarders will tear down our beloved Ryan Hall if they find out he’s making a million dollars a year. Who cares? That’s a good thing. There are message boards like that in every major sport. Do you think Albert Pujols gives a %^&? Are we afraid as running store owners that we’ll turn off the beginning runner if we have posters of Ritz and Deena and Shalane and Rupp in our stores or post their accomplishments on our Facebook pages? That’s ridiculous. I play rec league indoor soccer for fun and I’ve never heard anyone say (in slow, bitter, condescending voice), “Did you see that Cristiano Ronaldo last night running around in his fancy uniform, scoring goals? It just makes me want to quit.”
We are a culture of celebrities. We build people up, we tear them down and then we build them up again. We love to hear about how much money they make even though we say we hate it. We love to hear who they’re dating, what they’re wearing and for the particularly obsessed, even where they eat. But we have to put them on that pedestal first. If we keep telling everyone that Dathan, Ryan, Desi, Deena, Shalane and the rest of them are just like us then they will never reach star status. Our sport will never attract the casual runners. After all, if all those guys are just like us then why would we want to go pay money to see them or choose to watch them on TV? If they’re just like us then what’s the big deal?
THEY’RE NOT LIKE US!
(Ben Rosario currently lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. where he works as the marketing director for McMillan Running Company. From 2006-2012 he co-owned Big River Running Company, a specialty-run store with three locations in his native Saint Louis. For each of the last two years he served as the meet director for the USA Cross Country Championships. As a runner he was the runner-up at the 2005 U.S. Marathon Championships and ended his career with PRs of 4:03 in the mile and 2:18:53 in the marathon.)
Thank you, Ben. I have long been an advocate for increased public displays of professionalism in running. As the song once asked: “Oh, when will they ever learn?”
To show how things haven’t changed very much over the years, here’s a story from the early years of the Chicago Marathon when the sport was getting full-page pre-race coverage in USA Today, and articles in the Wall Street Journal.
In Chicago 1982 the stories were flowing about the “Killer Bees”, athlete liason Bob Bright and sponsor Beatrice Foods who were supposedly on a spending spree luring runners to Chicago. A flamboyant front man, Bright recruited a field in 1982 which included eventual champion Greg Meyer and Craig Virgin of the U.S., and European stars like Emil Puttemans and Karel Lismont, both Olympic medalists.
“Craig Neff of Sports Illustrated heard what we were doing,” remembers Bright. “And he said, ‘I’m coming out’. After the race (a Meyer win in 2:10:59), Craig came up to my hotel suite. On the bed he saw a yellow pad with names and numbers on it.”
“What’s this?” Neff asked.
“Those are the appearance fees,” said Bright.
The highest man on the list was Greg Meyer at $5000. Neff went back home, but no story ever emerged in SI about the race. Bright called to ask why.
“‘Well, there was no story,’ Neff told me, Bright recalled. ‘You were giving out lunch money, and the story was supposed to be how much money you were spending. You never should have shown me that list’. All the talk about big money was just that, talk.”
Today, with the vast majority of athlete money still hidden in appearance fees, the sport isn’t credited with the impact that it, in fact, does have. When appearance fees remain hidden, only the athlete and his agent are rewarded. The sport is left looking second-rate.
26 thoughts on “BEN ROSARIO: WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?”
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Ben, let me blunt. It’s none of your business, anymore than what i make is your business.
Does the media even ask about appearance fees for races? I suspect the reason the we don’t see this type of information in stories about races is because the question is not being asked! It’s not so much the responsibility of the race director, athlete, or agent to offer these numbers, but for the journalist to find out. I can see a number of reasons the question about appearance fees is not being asked: many sports journalists who cover running are at a junior level in their career before moving up to more “premiere” sports (not a knock against the career track journalists who are great at their craft) so they don’t know what’s important to ask, embarrassment over talking about money, embarrassment over the amount of money (which Ben brought up), stagnation (it’s hardly been talked about before, so why start now).
Another benefit of publicizing the financial side of the sport is that it will provide us with the kind of off-season “process stories” that keep people talking about the Big 4 year round. Even in the dead of winter, baseball writers and commentators keep the fans happy with news of contract negotiations, agent maneuvers, etc. Meanwhile, the T&F media spends most of the inter-Olympics years talking about high school and college athletes, and then we wonder why no one thinks of us as a pro sport.
Famiglietti is presenting a 2-mile road race this spring and has been talking up the prize purse, as has a new professional meet called Re:Run being held in San Diego this May. Not sure if either race is doing appearance fees, but they are both stressing the *professional* aspect of what they are doing and letting the fans know the stakes involved.
The Track & Field Athletes’ Association has featured blog posts about how athletes can create their personal brand and take the initiative to create financial opportunities. It was also a topic covered at the Pro T&F Summit that the Austin Track Club held in December.
Just call their agent if you want to know their appearance fee.
Scott- Okay. You’ve got me going! So here’s my theory. I believe one problem is that these companies deal with massive numbers when it comes to retail. If they can’t sell a million units of something it’s not worth it to them. And the channel most likely to sell these items, run-specialty, is afraid to push the professional side of the sport too much in fear of scaring away beginners. The athletes themselves do need to be more aware of the fact that our sport is different from others. We don’t have an NFL or and NBA behind us slamming the masses with advertisements everywhere we look. Self-promotion is a must in our sport and that’s why a guy like Josh Cox has a bigger following than just about anyone despite, as I’m sure he would tell you, a career that pales in comparison to others who make far less.
Ben – I am glad you are rolling with these ideas and topics, as they all need to be discussed. Toni and Matt Taylor’s Runnerville a few years ago was created with the simple hope that it would create conversations like this, ultimately leading to change in the sport, so the back-and-forth today from your editorial piece is a great, big step forward.
I completely agree that self-promotion is a must in our sport, but there are three rather large issues to this statement that cause self-promotion not to occur at a much greater frequency.
1. Many athletes don’t feel comfortable talking about themselves. Many top-level and B-level athletes in our sport don’t have websites and are only moderately active on social media. This alone creates a barrier between fans and their favorite athletes.
2. Many athletes, once they receive that shoe sponsorship, don’t feel the need to try and maximize their brand. They have their contract, which affords them the chance to pay their bills and maybe save a little, so they don’t really feel the need to leverage their brand and create additional opportunities. Similarly, the shoe sponsorship at this point seems like the only route an athlete can go to continue on in the sport.
3. There are very few individuals (and agents) who are willing to show T&F athletes the value of building their personal brands outside of the very confining square our sport has been dealing in for a long time, as well as creating additional business opportunities.
I agree with Toni that it really is up to the stakeholders to help our sport jump to the next level of organization, professionalism, opportunity and awareness.
Everyone, thanks for reading and caring!
Scott- Love your thoughts and agree wholeheartedly. This whole epiphany came to me at the Nike store in Vegas where I saw jerseys from stars littering the entire store and a line out the door for the new Jordans and yet the running section had a grand total of zero items with a running personality on them. There are fans out there people. Letsrun.com announced it had more than a million unique visitors in one month last year! You don’t think a few of those million would be a Galen Rupp shirt?
Jake- I’d be happy to “leak” how much some of the McMillan athletes make if I knew. That’s not my role with the company. My best guess is that top U.S. distance runners (Hall, Ritz, Shalane, etc.) make at least $250,000 a year or more in annual salary from their shoe sponsor and that is before bonuses. I also believe those athletes bring in a similar amount in appearance fees when they run major marathons. Add in additional deals with companies like Gatorade, Muscle Milk, etc. as well as prize money and it’s not unreasonable to believe some of these athletes top the million dollar mark in certain years. That’s a big deal. Of course the next tier down is a huge step down. Athletes the caliber of certain McMillanElite athletes or Hansons or wherever that are the 27:30-28:00 range for 10k or 2:10 for the marathon (men) or sub 32:00/2:30 (women) might sign deals of around $30,000-$50,000 a year. They can earn bonuses which roll over and are added to their salary for the next year but they can also see that salary reduced if they don’t meet certain criteria in a given year. To me I think it’s “sexier” to get the big stars out there and tout their deals as the small amount that the next tier makes is almost embarrassing. The hope being, of course, that a higher profile for the big stars will trickle down to create a higher demand for the second tier. The Tiger Woods theory if you will.
Again, let’s keep talking about this and not just among ourselves. Let’s create fans!!!
Ben, good follow-up response. While I agree that 1 million LetsRun visitors might just equate to 1 million Rupp t-shirts being sold, that then raises the issue of athletes branding themselves, or pushing their agents to do so. If the shoe companies aren’t going to do it, which at this point is mostly the case, then how do agents and athletes step up and do it themselves? Think if Rupp and his agent sold a Rupp t-shirt with a Nike swoosh on it. Nike would be all about it, Rupp would make some extra dough, as would his agent. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why?
Athletes like Nick Symmonds, Anthony Famiglietti, Lauren Fleshman, and a few others have figured out how to build a business around their personal brand. Yet most don’t. Again, why?
How do you propose we bring the sport to the fans (and potential fans)? We all have our ideas, but to really create change there needs to be discussion and then cohesive action pushed out by a group of like-minded, professional, passionate individuals.
Way to go, Ben. You got everyone all fired up. In 2009 when Meb won the ING NYC Marathon, no kid could go out the next day and buy a Meb race singlet. Brilliant marketing plan we have, huh?
I’ll agree that this is a complex problem, and part of the difficulty is that so many different factors determine the amount of payment. One of them is often NOT how well an athlete is expected to do in a particular race.
And I am not meaning to be disrespectful here, Ben, because you have gone out on a limb. But couldn’t you at least PARTIALLY address this matter by revealing how much McMillan athletes are paid?
Jake, that’s the problem. Nobody wants to be first to say how small their change is. Thanks.
Great post, Ben! I think it’s hard to compare others sports and ours though. Part of the reason why everyone knows how much major athletes in major sports make is because teams are the ones paying the salaries. In our sport we don’t have teams (for the most part), rather it’s all about getting sponsored. While you hear about the big-time contracts LeBron James and Derrick Rose get from Nike and adidas, you rarely hear about other athletes and the deals they have. Shoe companies love privacy and will do their best to keep what they pay most athletes very quiet. I feel the same could be said for races and appearance fees. By the way, golf tournaments have huge prize purses, but do they have appearance fees for top athletes? Doesn’t it make more sense to have ridiculously huge prize purses and limit the amount of appearance fees? Just sayin’.
This leads into a bigger issue in my eyes around why the shoe companies don’t do more to market their top T&F athletes. Why not make custom jerseys for top runners? Why not give their very top athletes their own spikes/shoes? Why not market their top T&F athletes at a much higher level?
These are all great topics to explore and I am glad you took a leap and started a conversation, Ben!
Scott, it all comes down to systems and presentation. The current system maintains local control of events, but stifles the growth of the professional sport. I wish someone would bring The Tour to the events instead of every event being a tour of one-and-done. Thanks for the perspective.
Strongly agree. This is the same theme that Toni has spoken about for years. There are strong parallels between running and surfing, particularly in the emotional engagement and identification that people who surf can bring to following premier practitioners of the same sport.
And look at how differently surfing graphs professional performance and reward: different world tours in different types of events, leader boards converging on one, ultimate world champion, oversized checks presented to event winners, and likely substantial appearance fees – exactly the elements Ben writes that the running industry ignores.
Thanks for chiming in, Marek. Never thought we’d get you following this sport. Welcome in, the water’s fine.
Being your brother, Tone, there’s no way I couldn’t follow running. Now I have something to compare it to.
Speaking personally, I agree that this openness would help grow interest in the sport. So many professional runners are met with surprise and amazement when they tell n00bs that they get paid to run. If the public understood that those guys up front in the marathon were making six-figures each year, we would be one step closer to premier athletes being seen as bona fide stars — not just weirdly-talented people who pursue to a weirdly-obsessive level what our friends/families/colleagues pursue more normally.
That said, such transparency might help the sport — but, unfortunately, it is not necessarily in the best interests of any of the parties involved in determining those contracts or appearance fees. (Ironically, with the possible exception of the athlete himself.) This is where running is hamstrung by its patchwork nature and the parochialism that accompanies: it’s a sport largely made up of owner-operators who are trying to do best for themselves during a limited career… and there isn’t a strong, centralized governing body to keep the tiller aimed at long-term gains, nudging its constituents in that direction, along the way.
The sport is also crippled by having a limited number of serious investors. If contract details leak and sour a baseball negotiation, there are dozens of other possible teams with whom to meet. Not so, in running. This is one area where I personally believe that the relaxation of the jersey-logo restrictions could be a legitimate difference-maker.
Thanks for the post, Ben!
Jeremy, the ideas have been around for years, just not the right sales people to attract the right investors. Falconhead Capital bought Elite Racing, but because the sport hadn’t created a proper foundation for the presentation of its top-end competitions, the money men didn’t see how their five-year investment would be well served by trying to develop it themselves. So they focused on the entry fees and the common man aspects. It is the stakeholders of the sport who have to take the lead in resurrecting professional competition. Leadership and unity are what’s called for. Thanks for your insights, as always.
Toni, what are your thoughts on how to make this leadership and unity happen? All of these ideas have been discussed for such a long time, yet change has barely occurred.
I completely agree. If anything, won’t it give people (especially the young kids pondering which sport to take up) something to aspire to? It was easy to dream of being a pro baseball or football player growing up because of the thought of being ‘rich and famous’. Although it’s not as widespread in running, it is there so why not use it as a marketing tool? Let the kids know that if they bust their butts they can make money as a pro runner.
As long as this sport continues to be watered down into individual events with no cohesion, the situation will never change. Thanks for joining the conversation.