Here’s the problem. When an endemic sponsor — in this case Nike — is signed to a generation long contract as the footwear and apparel sponsor of your national athletics federation, there will be unintended consequences that fail to serve the best interest of one constituency or another over that period. That is the situation that currently confronts 2013 800 meter World Championships silver medalist Nick Symmonds who had until noon today to sign the USATF “Statement of Conditions” contract that attends his Team USA berth on the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Beijing, China later this month.
Symmonds, formerly a Nike athlete, is now sponsored by Brooks. But under USATF by-laws, athletes competing at the world championships or Olympics (or other Team USA selected competitions) are prohibited from wearing non-USATF sponsored gear during “official team functions”.
As to what constitutes “official team functions” is the wording Symmonds contends is both vaguely written and in violation of his personal contract with Brooks. USATF CEO Max Siegel has told Mr. Symmonds that if he doesn’t sign he will be replaced on the team. And so it goes. And so we wait. (Late on August 9 Mr. Symmonds was informed he has been dropped from the team for Beijing for failure his to sign the contract.)
But with USATF signing Nike to a reported 23-year, $500 million extension as exclusive shoe and apparel sponsor for Team USA in April 2014, every athlete signed by any other shoe company finds him / herself in opposition to his/her own best interests since they will not benefit financially from the USATF deal with Nike — other than to elevate their future marketability by performing well on the stage provided. The situation is similar to the IOC generating $6 billion in sponsorship and TV rights from the Olympic Games, none of which is distributed directly to the athletes who make those Games possible and profitable.
But we must also look at the issue from the national federation’s standpoint, recalling the state of USA Track & Field over the last generation, and the job confronting Mr. Siegel when he took the CEO job three years ago.
While the Nike contract extension was negotiated without competing bids, still we have to ask what options were available to Mr. Siegel as he went into the marketplace in search of a sponsor last year? Are we to assume he had a laundry list of willing clients at the ready for a sport which has seen itself become the poster child for drug use since 1988, and now sits atop a rumbling volcano of drug allegations and predicted suspensions?
The odds are there were few if any such sponsors willing to shell out as much money as Big Swoosh. So you take what’s available in order to try to get yourself out of the hole dug by your predecessors. It’s not dissimilar to the welfare system as it was intended to work. At times people require a hand up. So in order to get the engine fired up again they negotiate the best deal possible, which in the case of USATF was with Nike. And though it comes with some long-standing problems, hopefully in the next generation this money will help seed the renewal of athletics.
Of course, the deal is for too little and extends for too long, especially considering that James Harden of the NBA’s Houston Rockets is currently deciding on which shoe company’s $200 million he will feed himself and his family with for the next 13 years. That is one basketball player sponsored for $15 million per year over 13 years, while all of USA Track & Field is sold for $20 million per year over 23 years. But that’s the state of the two sports in a nutshell, like it or not. Hardin is dealing from the strength of the NBA, which, among other things, like all pro sports, has a strong Players Association behind him. Max picks up what change he can, at least giving him some working capital to put a new USATF.TV deal in place, and enough to fund a new $14.6 million athlete budget. Is it enough? Not in comparison to other sports, perhaps, but you can’t say it is nothing or not an improvement.
Of course, when you talk to the people at the other shoe companies they question why they should be signing people like Symmonds to lucrative contracts when on the biggest stage on which he is going to perform, he can’t wear their stuff.
So, yes, the Nike-USATF contract restricts the marketplace for athletes, and tends to funnel them toward the one sponsor with whom there is no conflict. But fair observers must admit that Mr. Siegel was not negotiating from a position of institutional strength as he made the best of a bad situation where there were no perfect solutions, only compromising ones.
At the same time, who should the athletes really blame when they let a lone wolf like Symmonds be not just the standard bearer for their cause, but the sole potential litigant – as he threatens to sue USATF if left off the team to Beijing? We have seen former top track stars Bryan Clay, Jeremy Wariner and Duane Solomon all come out publicly to back Nick’s stand. But none of those guys made the world championship team in 2015. And to date none of the athletes who did make the team have been willing to join Symmonds on his crusade, understandably afraid of jeopardizing their perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent their country at the World Championships.
The one organization one might have expected to hear from, the Track & Field Athletes Association (TFAA), has been noticeably silent. TFAA is the nascent athletes union that began after Nick Symmonds first stood to contest the IAAF sponsor restrictions on athletes at the 2011 USATF annual meeting in St. Louis. TFAA president Adam Nelson admitted last month, “the athletes all know they need advocacy, but won’t do anything to achieve it.”
Now recall that earlier this month the top athletes of triathlon successfully joined together to form PTU, the Professional Triathlon Union. Since 1970 when baseball’s Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause that tied every MLB player to the team that drafted him, every other sport’s athletes have found themselves in a similar position, and all have managed to bring about a new professional era of increased athlete’s rights and commerce.
These are not easy issues. There’s a long-standing status quo in place that will not give way easily and that has vast power on its side. With over 200 member nations the IAAF is truly an extra-national consortium of national governing bodies, many from impoverished parts of the world where corruption is deeply endemic. Attempting to engineer wholesale change in such an enormous enterprise is at least as daunting as getting Donald Trump to sign onto Fox News Channels’ secret Santa program.
But until the athletes of track & field truly unite and collectively bargain, they will have no one to blame but themselves for continuing to be treated if not as serfs, as they were for decades, then simply as independent contractors where any one protester among them can be easily replaced, as Max Siegel has warned Nick Symmonds of being for Beijing 2015.