Some thoughts on athlete sponsorship, by Larry Eder



adidas racing spike, circa 1930, courtesy of adidas communicaitons.

First, there was adi Dassler making shoes for the likes of Jesse Owens. Then, Jeff Johnson, the guy who named Nike "Nike", used to give out t-shirts and Nike shoes (in embalming fluid boxes) with Geoff Hollister, from the back of one of their cars. That was athlete sponsorship, so how have things changed?

I have to say that I did enjoy observing the welcome that Wallace Spearmon, Jr. received at Saucony and their employees. It was fun, and for a brand like Saucony, who really has not picked up an athlete of this stature before, it was great to see a brand continuing to support our sport.

I had similar feelings when I visited New York the week before, when I watched New Balance bring in Jenny Barringer. The next day, I went to the NB Games to enjoy a meet in the NB Armory, like the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston, a place for our sport to grow.

For the past fifteen years, I have seen Reebok underwrite the Reebok Boston Indoor Games, which, under the management of Global Athletics & Marketing (Mark Wetmore & Rich Kenah), has developed into the best little indoor meet in the U.S. On Saturday, February 6, I watched the stands erupt as Galen Rupp, and then Bernard Lagat were introduced. These fans, high school, college and adult fans, knew Rupp and Lagat and cheered constantly through the 26 laps of the race. Rupp's move with five laps to go, woke the field up, and Bernard Lagat worked hard to hold off the two Ethiopian runners, who gave neither Lagat or Rupp any quarter.

In that meet, were runners from adidas, ASICS, New Balance, Nike, Reebok, Under Armour, among others. Each serious running brand plays a part in the success or failure of this sport. For most of these guys and gals, it is more than selling shoes. Athletes are used to promote the sport, support the sport, promote a brand, add credibility to a brand, among 1,000 other reasons for having sponsored athletes.

The other day, I received a call from a few friends in the business, giving me some pokes for writing so kindly about brands developing their own athletes or clubs. It was not so long ago that Brooks picked up the Hanson's Distance Project.
The WSJ covered that sponsorship, because it was so unusual for a brand such as Brooks to be sponsorsing athletes. What about the gobs of athletes that Nike and adidas have?

Track & Field and road running are not like other pro sports. The majority of athletes in our sport are supported with product and performance bonuses. It is the most high levels that athletes in our sport receive base salaries, health benefits and performance premiums. It makes sense, as our sport celebrates performance.

Companies such as adidas, ASICS, Nike and PUMA have done it for decades. So has Reebok, New Balance and Fila. In terms of sheer numbers, adidas and Nike sponsor the most athletes and federations. And in these economic times, both have had to cut athletes. But do not misinterpret the last sentence. If a brand wants an athlete, for whatever reason, that brand will find a way to get that athlete. When there are battles over single athletes or a group of athletes, that is when the prices go up. Most sponsorship managers would tell you that prices in 2010 are probably, with less than a few dozen exceptions, a third to half of what sponsorships were paid in 2006-2007. The market has spoken. The economy has spoken, and sponsorship managers are cautious, but, they should be. Bringing in an athlete that does not fit for the brand is, plain and simple, a waste of resources.

What is significant for me, with Jenny Barringer at New Balance and Wallace Spearmon, Jr at Saucony is not that others have not done athlete sponsorship packages, is that, these brands, because of focusing on smaller groups, may see more of an influence of that athlete or athletes in their company culture.

Look at Usain Bolt. Several brands had a shot at Usain, and PUMA picked him when he was a teen ager! There were whispers that the kid, who had a reputation for having more fun than training, was pretty darn good! Then, Coach Mills was able to let Usain Bolt determine that, to be great, he needed to train, and the rest, is well, sport history! One sponsorship manager, who had a shot at Usain, texted his company directors of how well Usain was doing in Beijing & Berlin. If one does not think that sponsorship managers are competitive, then, you live in a dream world.

A sponsorship well done, like the adidas icons, can effect how an brand is viewed. Last March, adidas invited media to the Home Depot, to see Veronica Campbell, Allyson Felix, Haile Gebrselassie, Jeremy Wariner, Christine Ohurugu and Blanka Vlasic in adidas product and also interview them. At the recent Nike women's marathon, Kara Goucher and Sammy Wanjiru were interviewed for the media, but gave the media a chance to a) see the new product and b) see a new event or brand message. Both of the above were successful.

I will continue to write about sponsorship of athletes, and how athletes can affect a brand, a sport, or an age. I would love to hear from you! Email me at [email protected]

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