USA Track & Field athletes want more freedom to lure sponsors

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USA Track & Field hopes a more coherent TV schedule and a bigger presence at live events will generate interest in the sport that lasts beyond the summer Olympics.

The ultimate goal is to attract more sponsor dollars, which further support athletes and competition. Yet USATF is at odds with some athletes who say they could line up more of their own sponsors, if it weren’t for the governing body’s rules.

siegel max Siegel

After an outcry last year over guidelines that prevent athletes from displaying their own sponsors’ logos on uniforms, USATF is drafting a new set of rules due out this month. It’s not clear to what extent the new guidelines will address athletes’ concerns.

Interim CEO Mike McNees said USATF made the rules to protect the interests of its existing sponsors, the largest of which are Nike and Visa. But the organization is also looking at the big picture—making sure TV audiences can easily follow the sport.

Interest in track and field tends to surge in Olympic years, and McNees said, “We have to be prepared to capture that momentum.”

USATF contracted with Max Siegel, a local attorney and former executive at North-Carolina-based Dale Earnhardt Inc., last fall to line up better broadcast slots and help craft a new marketing strategy. In the past, USATF arranged broadcasts on relatively short notice and ended up with leftover time slots offered by the networks, Siegel said.

Siegel’s plan involves creating mini-documentaries about individual athletes that the networks can run alongside meets. In general, Siegel said, he’s looking to capitalize on the wealth of human-interest stories within the sport.

A new TV deal for the outdoor season is to be announced in early January.

Siegel and USATF have also built an event-marketing team that will deploy to 12 major markets, starting with the Olympic Marathon trials in Houston on Jan. 14. The road show, “Win with Integrity,” will be in Houston for five days doing community outreach and hosting a fan experience, similar to what one might find at the NCAA Final Four, with event demonstrations and athlete meet-and-greets, Siegel said.

“I’m trying to get people to make an emotional connection to the athlete,” he said.

Siegel declined to speculate on how much more revenue his strategy could generate. This year, $11.3 million, or about 47 percent of USATF’s $23.8 million budget, will come from sponsors.

Some of that money makes its way to top athletes, but those in the lower tiers scrape by without any support from USATF.

That’s why USATF’s uniform guidelines became such a hot-button issue. The only names and logos that could appear on uniforms were that of the manufacturer, athlete and his or her club. And those were to be small—30 square centimeters to 40 square centimeters.

USATF essentially matched existing international competition rules, but some track and field observers think USATF, as a member-driven organization, overstepped its bounds by handing down an edict before consulting athletes.

“It’s about opportunity,” said David Greifinger, a Santa Monica, Calif., attorney who represents athletes in their dealings with USATF. “It’s also about athletes’ rights.”

trackInternal power struggle aside, track and field remains unsettled on what kind of business model will bring the most revenue to the sport. Some athletes and coaches think they should go the route of NASCAR, while USATF, heeding the word of current sponsors, says there’s more value in signing exclusive contracts.

The issue gained traction last fall, after Nick Symmonds, a champion 800-meter runner, posted a blog on the Flotrack running website titled, “I’m tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport.”

“As an athlete that has been involved in track and field for 14 years and has made a career as a professional runner for six of those years, I can say, with absolute conviction, that these regulations are the biggest problem with our sport today,” wrote Symmonds, who was traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Though Symmonds, who trains in Oregon, has benefited from his own Nike sponsorship, he argued that he could have even more sponsors if he were allowed to advertise for them.

The issue is especially salient for those athletes who don’t rank high enough to get direct support from USATF or a contract with a shoe company.

Erin Nehus-Vergara, a 30-year-old physical therapist from Indianapolis, for example, qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trial in Houston with a time of two hours, 37 minutes and 30 seconds.

That’s fast enough for USATF to pay her way to Houston, but for the past five years, the only support for her training has come from the Athletic Annex Running Centre, a north-side running store.

The store gives her gear, and co-owner Thom Burleson volunteers his time as coach. Knowing how little sponsorship money is available in running, Nehus-Vergara said she’s opted to support herself by working part time. Other runners pull in whatever they can from various sources.

“Runners would do the race car uniform if they could,” she said.

McNees said he’s frustrated with the fixation on uniform advertising as a source of revenue.

“We’re only having a conversation about logos, which is a tiny tip of the iceberg,” he said. “A guy like Peyton Manning has a lot of sponsorship that doesn’t show up on his uniform on Sunday afternoon.”

Yet in professional basketball, baseball and football, any athlete who makes the team gets paid. That’s far from the case in track and field, Greifinger said, and that’s why he and others continue to point to NASCAR as a model for track and field.

Based on what he’s hearing from existing sponsors, McNees does not think a free-for-all in athlete advertising is the way to go. It would simply lower the value of each advertising space, he said.

McNees said USATF came out with the detailed uniform rules in the first place because of its own contract with Nike, which grew from $4.5 million to $9 million a year under a deal signed in 2009.

“To be consistent with our obligations to Nike, yes, we should have some sort of regulation,” McNees said.

Before the disputed guidelines were handed down, USATF bylaws simply stated that uniforms should be neat, clean and inoffensive. McNees said USATF decided to copy existing international rules to make things simpler for manufacturers.

As one person who’s worked closely with both track and field and NASCAR, Siegel said the comparison is not as simple as some believe.

“Even when you look at a car in a NASCAR race that has a bunch of stickers on it, it’s highly regulated,” he said.

Sponsors do pay more for exclusive rights to advertise in certain categories, Siegel said. “In a sport like NASCAR, people truly understand, and they work together on it.”•

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