By Jonathan Gault
January 4, 2019
Another year has come and gone, which means that across the sport of running, sponsorship contracts are coming to an end. While more names will trickle out over the coming months, LetsRun.com can report that in 2019 Reebok will no longer sponsor the ZAP Fitness elite athlete team.
“After 14 great years we are no longer under contract with them,” said ZAP Fitness elite athlete coach and coordinator Pete Rea. “You’re never promised tomorrow and we found out during the fall that they were interested in moving in a different direction.”
ZAP Fitness is a non-profit training center for Olympic hopefuls based in Lenoir, N.C. Its elite athlete team includes Tyler Pennel, who placed 5th at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials and 4th at the 2018 Boston Marathon.
While Rea said that Reebok’s financial support “was a significant chunk that assisted us in all we do here,” he added that the group has already found a new corporate partner, which will be announced shortly. Other than new uniforms — which ZAP is set to debut at the Houston Half Marathon on January 20 — Rea said not much will change. All 10 athletes that were part of the team in 2018 will return as part of the squad in 2019.
“In terms of all of the support with salary and health insurance and lodging and meals and travel and all that we do, nothing’s changing at all,” Rea said. “…The good thing about the business model that my wife [Zika] and her late husband Andy [Palmer] set up when they started ZAP is we’ve never been reliant on one funding source. ZAP the business, our retreat center that runs camps for high school and college teams and educational retreats, produces about one-third of our income. The other third comes from nonprofit donations, which is about 200-300 donors per year, and then the final third of the pie has always been a corporate sponsor.”
In July, Reebok started a new professional group, the Reebok Boston Track Club, headlined by 2017 NCAA cross country champion Justyn Knight and helmed former Syracuse coach Chris Fox. And while Paul Astorino, senior director for specialized at Reebok, said that part of the reason for ending the company’s agreement with ZAP was the cost of sponsoring two professional groups, it was not the only reason for the split.
“That was part of the decision,” Astorino said. “I don’t know what percentage of the decision [it] was. Of course, we want everything, but in the world of running business, sometimes you have to make a decision to focus. And I would say it’s less dollars and more ability to maximize what everyone is doing from a communication standpoint and a marketing standpoint and a creation of product standpoint.”
Specifically, Astorino said that on the product side, Reebok’s aim is to stand for lightweight cushioning in its shoe. Astorino said that Reebok felt that, in trying to develop the best lightweight cushioning product, it would rather throw its full support RBTC, a group focused more on the track and shorter distances.
“It was simply a matter of being able to put together the type of group that we felt would give us that from the bottom up,” Astorino said. “Not to say that Pete’s group doesn’t do some of those things, but much of Pete, his entire group was established really before we figured out what we wanted to stand for on the product side.
“What does it take to run 13:00 on the track, that kind of idea. What does it take to get a woman [to get] down in the 8:40 range [for 3k]? And being able to pull together the whole concept that we have has given us a chance to be able to follow that journey on the product side. And I think if you’re a 13:00 guy — as we hope part of the group will be that — or Robert [Domanic] has run 3:54 [for the mile], Justyn’s run 3:55, Kemoy [Campbell] is right around 4:00, etc. That’s just on the men’s side.
“To do that, you have to be able to shift a certain speed over 200 and we just have ideas that we’re investigating about, okay if you’re shifting a certain speed over the last 200 or the last 100, or the last 150, or the 50 from 300 out to 250 out, what happens? And we feel like we can answer those things with the group that we’re putting together. And then we feel like on the product side, that will give us bigger answers for people who run 14:00 for 5k, for women who run 15:00 for 5k or 17:00 or 19:00 or 35:00.”
Both Rea and Astorino stressed that ZAP and Reebok ended their partnership on good terms.
“I want to be very clear about this,” Rea said. “If you think about their [president] Matt O’Toole, whose son (Garrett) was a star at Princeton and now I believe he’s a fifth-year at Arizona State, in many ways, I think that his passion for running as the guy at the top was one of the reasons Reebok chose to jump feet-first back into higher level contracts and really putting athletes on the international stage. And it may sound cliche, but we’re excited about it and we hope they go kick ass. We just weren’t part of that vision for them going forward.”
“What Pete and his group are doing down there, the results are speaking for themselves,” Astorino said. “They were a great partner. We were forthright, and I hope Pete believes the same thing from when I had the conversation with him back in November: this is not any kind of condemnation of anything that they are doing. They’re a fabulous group and we wish them all the luck in the world.”
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