I found this gem and wanted our readers to see the brilliance of Phoebe Wright, who competed for Nike and trained with the Brooks Beasts. A Tennessee Vol, Phoebe was a tough 800m runner and also a fine writer.
This piece, written by Phoebe Wright in June 2016, is about the challenges of attempting to be a professional athlete. It is a must-read for coaches, athletes, and parents. Phoebe Wright is brilliant, a lovely writing style and the honesty of an ee cummings poem (one of my highest compliments).
This piece is a must-read for all athletes considering going pro.
Reposted 4 September 2022
Originally posted June 24, 2016
RunBlogRun opines: Phoebe Wright has provided us an amazing piece on what it takes to go PRO for track athletes. This is part one, and there is a lot of hard-earned knowledge here.
No one knows how to do it, not even pros.
If the athlete is really good. Like top 2-3 in the NCAA and has run fast.
1. Multiple agents will approach the athlete to get the athlete to hire them.
2. Athlete will hire an agent.
3. The agent will go to the different shoe companies and see if any want to sponsor said athlete.
4. It’s kind of like eBay and the companies fighting for athlete sponsorship.
5. The agent takes the best contracts back to the athlete and explains them to the athlete.
6. The contract may require the athlete to join a group/coach. This is taken into consideration.
7. The athlete usually (or at least should) meet with the shoe company, coach, and teammates.
8. Athlete signs the contract and then is “professional.”
9. The Athlete then is unknowingly responsible for a lot of moving pieces of his/her professional career.
10. Athlete is clueless about how to do his/her job. Running fast is only a piece of the job of a “professional runner.”
There are a lot of things in this model that I don’t like.
1. How the heck does a 22-year-old with no life experience know-how choose an agent?
2. It almost feels like the agent is recruiting the athlete because the athlete is ignorant. The athlete doesn’t realize that they are the boss. They pay the agent a healthy chunk of change–15% of all earnings.
3. Athletes blindly trust the agent and coach because they do not know any other way to navigate the situation. There is no unbiased source to ask questions.
4. In this model, salary is prioritized because the agent prioritizes the salary. When really, the athlete should be figuring out which environment is going to be the most conducive to success.
5. A lot of things going on behind closed doors that the athlete is unaware of. The athlete has no clue how the game works and thus usually puts all the trust in the coach and agent. Coaches can be manipulated by agents and shoe companies. Therefore, an athlete can be persuaded to go into a situation that is not ideal.
6. I see this happen a lot. College coaches get possessive of the athlete and persuade the athlete to stay under the same program, Or the college coach will push an athlete to a high profile group or sponsor to get the bragging rights of saying, “I coached so-in-so to be a (Brand) athlete in (Important Track Club).”
–NOTE: Staying with a collegiate coach rarely works. Professional runners need professional coaches. There is a reason why professional football players don’t train with Nick Saban, even though Nick is a good coach.
7. Basically, the problem is the athlete is a pawn and doesn’t realize it.
WHAT THE ATHLETE SHOULD DO
Before anything, the athlete should know why they want to keep running–to improve. To inspire people? Because it’s fun? Do they like teams? To get paid? Because they don’t know anything else to do?
They should be real and know what they want out of the sport. They should also think about what they might want to do post-running. Because running is a temporary gig–You don’t want to be 30 with no real job experience, no savings, and no sponsorship.
The athlete should value the training environment as a whole above all. The athlete should go where they feel they will be successful.
HIRING AN AGENT
When hiring an agent: talk to many agents as possible. They are applying for a job and the athlete decides who gets it.
Questions to ask:
How are you different than other agents?
Are you good at answering emails quickly?
How many athletes do you have?
Do you do travel or do I?
If I get myself into a meeting, will you take 15% of the prize money?
If I book everything for USAs, will you take 15% of my prize money?
Are you good at getting people like me into meets?
You have another top athlete in my event; who will you push to get into the meet?
Do you travel to meets?
Do you try to secure promotional deals outside of my main sponsorship?
How will you try to get me extra money?
If I get into a dispute with my shoe company–what is your role?
What is your relationship with the major shoe brands?
You are asking me to sign a contract…what does this contract mean?
CHOOSING A TEAM/COACH/ENVIRONMENT
Talk to as many post-collegiate groups, coaches, athletes, and shoe companies as possible. Ask all the tough questions:
Questions for the coach/team:
When/where would I train?
What facilities are available?
What is it like being sponsored by Shoe Company?
What is going to be the hardest part of my job?
How often would I race?
What would the coach train me?
Why did the other athletes join this group?
So-in-so joined the group and didn’t improve, why?
How did so-in-so in the group improve so drastically?
This group has a reputation of overtraining kids/doping/being not serious/drinking/any other problem….. tell me about it and why?
What would you do to try to get me to improve? Where do you think my upside is?
How much does it cost to live here?
Where do other people on the team live?
Do you go to altitude? Who pays for that?
Do you have Physio?
Do you have access to a sports psych?
Do you have a nutritionist?
Do you have a weight coach?
Can I get a part-time job?
How much stuff outside of training would I do? Does the team volunteer? Do promotional stuff?
CHOOSING A SHOE COMPANY:
Questions for a potential sponsor
Why should I sign with you?
What is the culture of your company?
How will you promote me?
Are you willing to support me if I have an off year?
How long to elite athletes you sponsor stay with you?
What do you expect of me in terms of athletic performance?
What do you expect of me in terms of things not related to athletic performance (modeling, speaking engagements, commercials…)
What do you do differently from other companies?
Would I be able to get other secondary sponsorships?
What is your stance on doping?
Should I have social media?
What can I do to help promote you?
SIGNING A CONTRACT:
The environment the athlete is choosing should be prioritized over the salary. If the athlete is running well, he/she will make money–So the situation matters more than the salary. With that being said, salary/bonus/reductions should be considered–Let’s say an athlete found a good situation, but he/she has to have a full-time job; it’s probably not worth it. Or if the athlete has a good situation but the contract has massive reductions, is the athlete going to be able to handle that pressure? It might be worth taking a no-reduction deal with a good-but-not-quite-as-good environment. It depends on the person.
After the athlete chooses a group/shoe company and discusses it with the coach, agent, parents, etc., the athlete is handed a contract.
The athlete should then go to a contract lawyer and have them explain the contract line by line. The athlete should know what their life will look like if they run well, are mediocre, poor, or get hurt. They should know their rights. They should know what option years mean. They should know what reductions mean. They should know what every word means.
Then, they should sign the contract and make the transition.
Once they have moved and are settled, there are a lot of other things to know–mostly with managing money. But also about being a boss of agent/coach/physio people etc.
THE ABOVE IS FOR THE SUPER-ELITE NCAA ATHLETES. Only 3-4 athletes at most from each event will go through the above steps. I don’t think people realize that most of the top athletes at USAs live more of a starving artist as opposed to a professional athlete lifestyle.
HOW MUCH IS THE ATHLETE WORTH?
A lot of times, there is no rhyme or reason as to who is worth what number. In general, the more hype the athlete has, the more he/she will get paid.
The athlete gets paid on merit AND potential. Mostly potential. So the older the athlete gets, the less they are worth. A 2:00 800m woman in college gets paid. A 2:00 800m 24-year-old woman a year removed from college is lucky to get gear. After graduation, it gets very, very hard to secure a contract. The athlete has to win things or make teams or run records.
WHAT IF THE ATHLETE IS NOT QUITE GOOD ENOUGH TO GET A DEAL:
Those athletes have to do a lot of wheeling and dealing for themselves. They might not be able to find an agent that wants to work for them, so, therefore, they will have to contact potential sponsors for themselves. They have to figure out where their worth is….how can they help promote a company? Why should a company pay them? And they go to the company and pitch the idea.
NOW FOR THE FUN STUFF–NUMBERS AND CONTRACT JARGON.
(NOTE: I know this because I went to different shoe companies and got copies of the fine print in their contract. This is not brand specific.)
The salary is only a piece of the contract’s worth.
Some contracts have reductions. A typical reduction would be:
If you aren’t top 5 in the US, you lose 25% of your salary
If you don’t make an Olympic team, you could get a 20%-30% reduction
If you get hurt, you could get a 50% reduction.
Almost all contracts have bonuses.
There are bonuses for being in a major publication.
Bonuses for running certain times
Bonuses for placing at major races or championships
US rankings bonuses
World ranking bonuses
World/Olympic medal bonuses
USA champs medal bonuses
Some of these bonuses are rollover bonuses, meaning they are now added to your base salary for the remaining years in the contract.
If you win USAs, you hit A LOT of those bonuses, and money is good.
The better your salary, usually the better the bonuses. It’s all about leverage. If you are lucky to have a contract, your bonuses are probably not going to be great because you didn’t have the leverage to get a good salary, and therefore, you do not have the leverage to get a good bonus.
The contract usually has a travel budget, sometimes a coaching stipend, sometimes a physio budget, and gear.
Some contracts have option years. This means that the shoe company has the option to extend your contract.
Most contracts have a number of races you have to run, or you could get reduced or lose your contract.
Most contracts have a number of appearances you have to do for the company.
It is important to remember that the shoe company expects returns on its investment. Why should a shoe company pay for an athlete if that athlete is not running well or is not relevant? It is not a personal decision to cut an athlete; it is a business one. It is hard for athletes to deal with injury and then get funding cut and not feel hurt by it.
It is all in the business game.
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