This weekend, there were several Nike NXN regional meets, plus Foot Locker Regional meets across the US. There were also nearly one thousand road races, big and small, across the U.S.
I want you to consider for a moment, who pays for all of these? While in large part, there are local sponsors who help defray costs, and professional organizations from timing to site management, the majority of events, big and small rely somehow on the relationship between specialty retail and the various running footwear companies.
I have provided, for your consideration, a good start at recognizing the support given by the local running shoe rep, and their companies….
This goes from the Fall 5k in your town to the recent Beijing Olympics.
Consider for a moment, the little robot car shown below. It is this remote control car that is moved around to carry the hammer implement back to the participants. I love it, it is technology that is a bit herky jerky, and in some ways it requires skill, training and luck. It is also an allusion for sports marketing our sport,
so be patient, get a sack lunch and hear me out….
During the Beijing Olympics, I was quoted in a Financial Times web article on sports marketing, the importance of the 100 meters in this process and the benefits certain companies had received when their athletes did well in the featured sprint race. A global sports marketing director, a good friend, took me to task over my comments, and we fired texts back furiously for a couple of days. I wanted to take this time to clear the air, so bear with me. I also wanted to take the time to give you my view of how the different brands approach the sport, their challenges and their successes. It should make for some interesting reading.
First of all, the Olympics is one of the largest sports stages that one can imagine. To implement a global approach to our sport on an Olympic or world championship stage is an awesome task that requires a huge amount of dollars, lots of planning, and the right people to implement. It also requires, because you are using athletes, that the major intangible comes into play-the athletes need to be healthy, focused and perform great on the right day, once every two years, in case of a world or area champioship, or on right day every four years in terms of Olympic championships.
Luck has a huge role in the success or failure. Win alot of medals for your brand, and the sports marketing guy is a genius, have a bad day, and they are looking for ways to cut back on your budgets. Heck, in this day and age, all companies want to cut budgets or fight you for those dollars.
In the Olympic and world championship world, there are several ways to approach our sport. Some companies sponsor individual athletes, for footwear and apparel, knowing that in champs, they must wear federation apparel, but can wear their sponsor’s footwear. Some brands sponsor federations, and take the competitive gear and house all in the apparel and non sponsored athletes (the majority) will end up getting the sponsors footwear as well.
Some federations have gotten smart and sell award apparell-what one wears on the award platform and in flag ceremonies and what one wears on the field of competition. So, for example, in past adidas had US Olympic federation, worn in awards, and flag ceremonies, and Nike had USA track & field uniforms and gear.
The truth is, adidas invented global sports marketing under the late Horst Dassler. I had the privilege of meeting him in the mid 1980s before his death and found him as charming and driven as the thousands of federation officials he dealt with. Companies like Nike, and Reebok took sports marketing to a new level in the 1990s, many times with professionals formerly mentored by the late Horst Dassler. adidas learnt from the changes in sports marketing over the past two decades, and their approach is a perfect example of finding a theme that makes sense for the particular brand and executing it with clarity. The adidas icon program where adidas highlights key athletes, is a very thoughtful approach to their brand strategy. It also, on good days and bad days, makes those icons the focal point of all other brand strategies.
2008 is a whole different ball game and the level of sophistication is quite high. In the end, you need to remember that this is a business, and it is war out there on the field of competition. There are as many ways of competing on this level as there are companies, and if there is a lesson, it is that one must find where sports marketing fits into one’s business plan and that ROI-return on investment-is long term with sports marketing. This is about branding, this is about goodwill, this is about sales, this is about kicking your competitors back side. The key is, however, if you do not have the deep pockets of your compeition, pick your battles.
One other thing to consider. In all of the companies I work with, I can not tell you of one person in this business who does not love our sport, and who does not want to see overall success for the sport. In private, they bemoan the frustrations of various national federations and their unimaginative approaches to sports marketing and branding the sport. They bemoan how the sport is portrayed and they are fearful of the effect that drugs have taken, or just the spectre of drugs have taken on our sport. In the end, these people, many former athletes, some still athletes, bleed for our sport.
Good news is that several of the largest marketers are seriously considering not signing anyone who has been tainted by a previous drug conviction. I believe that they should go farther and not hire coaches or agents who have dirtied themselves, their athletes and their sport with consistent drug convictions. The European Athletic Association has suggested longer drug bans and in European meets, one can not get an invite if the athlete has had a two year conviction.
I am not giving out any secrets, but I felt that time had come to remember the part various footwear brands play in our sport and also that it is not a footwears responsibilty to change, promote or improve the sport. That is the work of all of us, coach, athlete, running store owner, sports fan. Here in no particular order, is how some of the sports brands approach, in my mind, their sports marketing philosophies. I also am speaking in generalities, but this will give you an idea and I hope you are as amazed as me at how much we owe these companies for keeping our sport alive. All have their place to play.
adidas-again, the founder of global sports marketing. In Beijing, adidas has clothed and equipped over 3000 athletes and thousands of volunteers. adidas has relationships with top federations, and their elite athlete program is what I would call icons. Over various sports, adidas has picked a couterie of athletes, Allyson Felix, Jeremy Wariner, Tyson Gay, Haile Gebrselassie, Yelena Isinbayeva, Jenn Stucyznski, who they promote, build branding around, and use not only to showcase the product, but promote the brand. They also have a group of retired athletes, Mo Greene, Donovan Bailey, who they have used to be ambassadors of the brand. In the US, adidas developed a poster program with some magazines that gave out 750,000 posters to teen age sports fans, promoting their major athletes. If there is a all around statement for adidas, their approach is finding long term growth relationships, promoting the sport, branding adidas and being patient. adidas has strong sponsorships of major athletic meetings worldwide, and in US, sponsors adidas Outdoor track classic, Millrose Games and Boston Marathon, in my mind, the best promotion of a marathon in North America. I would be remiss in not noting that they have -real, Berlin, FLORA London and BAA Boston, as three of their major marathons. The communication tools they use in Boston are, in my mind the singularly best branded event in our sport, period. In November 2008, adidas signed an eleven year deal with the IAAF, where they will be the global sponsor of athletics for the global federation. Watch adidas take its acumen and it’s icons to new levels.
ASICS-in the US, ASICS is the top performance running brand, and while they are global, my experience is with their US brand. ASICS is all about grass roots, whether it be training logs, posters of their athletes, and they have a very small, but focused group of athletes. Lo Lo Jones, Deena Kastor, Ryan Hall are key in the US. ASICS has used the less is more, what we do, we do well approach, with ING New York, Big Sur marathon and Cincinnati Flying Pig marathons. They also sponsor track meets and cross country events at the prep level. Again, grass roots, tie in local dealers, push the brand. ASICS is number one in performance running sportswear and this puts huge amounts of pressure on the brand.
Brooks Running-number two in US performance, and as they are focused on running, their involvement in athletics is the Brooks Hansen Distance Project, a sponsored club who had Brian Sell make the US marathon team for Beijing. They are sponsoring various high school state meets, cross country events, track events and road races, tying them in to their local dealers, which is key in their mind. Brooks is an example of a focused brand strategy that works for their size company and budget. Their support of Clinics in the Midwest, Washington and Michigan state meets on the prep side is also part of their strategy.
New Balance–New Balance is a global brand and has ventured into some of the top marathoners in the sport, the Race for the Cure race series ( 5ks all, huge numbers), sponsors Hall of Fame for Track & Field, as well as the NY Armory. Very grass roots. had two athletes make US Olympic team, Josh McAdams and Philip Dunn (50k racewalk), and has involvement with some of larger cross country races in US, main effort in sport is providing home for over 60 indoor meets and 100,000 plus kids in Metro NY to run indoor track & field. Sponsor of Elite Marathon race series as well. Their global athletes, continue to put New Balance’s name at the front of many of the world’s top marathons. NB has just taken on a management change and a new brand positioning-we shall see how that works for them. NB has been well known for supporting their local dealers with local events. While they lost the Chicago marathon, their Race for the Cure sponsorship, their improved product, and their size as the largest privately held running footwear business gives them some plusses on their competiion. Clearly number four in performance in US, they are fighting again for number three position.
Nike-if adidas started sports marketing, Nike has blown it up and puts its impramateur on it. As the largest global brand, Nike has relationships with more federations than others, including China, Russia and USA track & field. Also, no longer a guerrilla marketer, Nike is now USOC sponsor, and has used that sponsorship well, promoting the brand. Their iconic events, the Nike Indoor, Nike Outdoor, and Nike XC Championships are the definitions of how prep meets should be sponsored. Nike now has the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and the Nike Women’s marathon , and their nikeplus.com site gives them the opportunity to develop iconic projects. Their biggest plus and negative is that they are no longer the guerilla marketer. They still use their position to keep the response irreverent. The best sponsorship of a federation? USA Track & Field has to rank near the top, if not the top sponsorship jewel. Nike’s refocus on performance running is making them a player across the US again, now in the top five, fighting for the fourth position. The battle for Nike is not outside challengers, but the importance of running inside the berm. The Eugene 2008 Olympic Trials was, in my opinion, of the most exciting presentations of our sport, ever, period, anywhere.
Mizuno-a global brand and over one hundred years old, Mizuno may be coming out of its shell. The IAAF sponsor through 2008, Mizuno was the sponsor of the World Champs in Osaka. Quality of their product is not an issue-well executed and well developed. Mizuno has sponsored many of the world’s top athletes, but most are based in Asia. They are a sleeping giant in the US. Their running business in the US is the the smallest of their four areas-baseball, volleyball, golf and running. With the arrival of Fritz Taylor, a former Nike and Brooks manager, perhaps Mizuno will see the opportunities that they have in the U.S. Mizuno has also sponsored a series of athletes and local running events in the U.S.
PUMA-PUMA has focused its efforts, over the past few years on Jamaican athletes with Usain Bolt being the primary focus. The use of You Tube, Chasing Bolt.com and video gave great promotions for the company. In the US, PUMA has focused on their performing markets and sponsor prep cross country events and track events. They
also have the Mt. SAC Invite, one of the oldest and most prestigious events in the country.
Reebok-now part of the adidas global company, Reebok competes with adidas on all fronts. Their sponsorship of NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, among others gives it cache. Its infrastructure gives it the ability to put product out and deliver, but Reebok has had some internal challenges. Sports marketing has focused on developing athletes with New Zealands’s Nick Willis, bronze in the 1,500 meters, Australia’s Steve Hooker, gold in the pole vault, and US Jorge Torres, third in the US Trials, 10,000 meters, testament to that program. They also sponsor the Reebok Boston Indoor Games, one of the stalwarts of the US indoor series, and the Reebok NY Grand Prix. Reebok has had some success with focusing on a few running markets, but key is support from management, who seems not to understand Reebok’s strengths in women, fitness and running. Some strong product in 2009. Kudos to Reebok for supporting the Manhattan Invite XC and the Mt. SAC XC, two of the largest XC events in North America. Reebok also has the Spanish and Polish Federations, I believe. Their surprise gold medalist Majiewski, in the men’s shot put,
again shows the thought behind sponsoring a federation.
Saucony–Saucony has had athlete sponsorships for thirty years. Remember, they had Rod Dixon when he won the 1983 ING NYCM? Their athletes now number about three dozen and are young Americans, who can be seen running in races around the US. Saucony is very good at supporting smaller races and races that tie into local running stores that support Saucony. A nice example of a brand that has focused on their niche, supported it well and is fighting for the number three performance running position in US.
Under Armour-new to running footwear, Under Armour is being watched from many fronts. How will they capitalize on their brand recognition with performance apparel in their 2009 intro into running footwear? They sponsor their hometown Baltimore Marathon, and it will be fascinating to see where the Under Armour brand shows up in their new running launch in Spring 2009.
Other brands-Avia, Ecco, Etonic, K-Swiss, Merrell, The North Face, Spira, Zoot all have roles in this world. Consider for a moment that there are over 20,000 road races in the US, and 32,000 track meets and cross country races in the US in any given year. Many of the brands, besides those mentioned above, sponsor events that support their marketing plans. In the end, all of these companies sell running shoes and apparel.
The point for all of us to consider is that, without all being a part of this wonderful global sport we call athletics, running, track & field, there would be no sport. From the local running store that provides numbers for the four local high school cross country meets and a ten percent discount, to Guy Morse working on new kid’s events at the BAA Boston marathon, to the mile races sponsored by the city of Austin, the infrastructure provided in support of our 50,000 plus events in the US alone each year is mind boggling when one sits down and considers the effects on the sport
if these players see that their support is unrecognized or unvalued.
It is always easy to put hands out, saying, well only if this company put more dollars into our sport, it would be better. At the end of the day, each company shown above, the hundreds of others who support our sport, have sport marketing managers, directors or VPs who have boards demanding what ROI-return on investment that they are getting from the millions invested to support the sport.
How will the running shoe business fare in this economic collapse, and whether you call it recession, depression, one thing is for certain-millions have lost jobs, are loosing their homes and will have to fight back to stay even.
Our sport is a stress releaser. Each walk, each run, gives us a break from the normal craziness of our given day. A pair of new running shoes, new socks, new shorts is a small cost-a small cost that has to be budgeted now-to keep our sanity.
For more on the sport, please check http://www.runningnetwork.com
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