By Jonathan Gault
January 23, 2020
Sponsorship contracts are one of the most secretive things in the sport of track & field. Basic details such as their value and length, widely available in major professional sports such as football or basketball, are hidden behind the walls of nondisclosure agreements.
Track & field doesn’t have a draft, and there are no age limits: athletes are free to sign a contract whenever they please. So how does a sponsorhip deal come about? LetsRun.com decided to investigate.
This week, we’ll take you behind the scenes of the transition from collegiate athlete to professional, from finding an agent to signing a contract to case studies of two of the top athletes from the college class of 2019. After interviews with over two dozen athletes, coaches, agents, and shoe company executives, here’s your three-part guide to how to turn pro in track & field.
Part I of the series, which explained how athletes find agents, is here: How To Turn Pro In Track & Field, Part I: Finding an Agent.
Part III is here: How To Turn Pro In Track & Field, Part III: Case Studies of Grant Fisher and Morgan McDonald.
In the winter of 2009-10, everybody wanted a piece of Jenny Simpson. Still going by her maiden name, Barringer, at the time (she married Jason Simpson in 2010), Simpson was a 23-year-old redshirt senior at the University of Colorado who had just completed one of the greatest seasons ever by a collegiate distance runner. Indoors, she had broken collegiate records in the mile, 3,000, and 5,000 meters. Outdoors, she had destroyed the NCAA 1500 record with an incredible 3:59.90 at the Prefontaine Classic before going on to win NCAA and US titles in the steeplechase. In August, she had run an American record of 9:12.50 in the steeple to place 5th at the World Championships in Berlin (Simpson was elevated to 4th in 2015 after the winner was disqualified for doping).
Yes, Simpson had concluded her collegiate career in November 2009 with a disastrous 163rd-place showing at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, but that poor performance had little effect on her value. Simpson had the potential to go down as one of America’s all-time greatest distance runners, and because she was turning professional in the winter — most athletes turn pro in June after spring track — agents and shoe companies were even more focused on her than usual. What happened next was track & field’s version of The Bachelorette.
In December, several agents flew out to Boulder to wine and dine Simpson and her father, who advised her and sat in on the meetings. Well, it wasn’t always wine — Simpson’s meeting with Ray Flynn took place at her favorite coffee shop, Spruce Confections in North Boulder.
Simpson signed with Flynn and told him that before she signed a shoe contract, she wanted to meet in person with representatives at each brand to get to know the people she’d be working with.
“I [didn’t] want to shut out different companies just because they’re smaller or they have a smaller role in the sport,” Simpson says. “I really wanted to see what opportunities were out there.”
And that’s when the courtship of Jenny Simpson really kicked into high gear.
Simpson and Flynn devised a two-week cross-country tour, during which they would visit five HQs — with the shoe companies footing the bill. The itinerary: Boulder to Seattle (Brooks) to Beaverton (Nike) to Boston (Saucony and New Balance) to Baltimore (Under Armour).
“It was super fun,” Simpson says.
Of course, Simpson still had to fit in her training.
“We ran really early in the morning in Seattle,” Simpson says. “Of course, it’s Seattle, so it’s pouring down rain, it’s super dark. And I think Ray was just like, I don’t want to send her off and lose her, so I’m just going to run with her. And I don’t know why, but I remember that run being particularly hard. And I think Ray was, early in the trip, thinking, What have I got myself into?”
But Flynn, the Irish record holder in the mile, then in his early 50s, earned his commission; he ran with Simpson every day of the trip.
Simpson visited Brooks and Nike, where she went on a run with Shalane Flanagan, but she was determined to keep her options open — even if it meant having to be reminded of what, exactly, those options were.
“On that trip, I kept forgetting I was going to New Balance because they were such a nonfactor,” Simpson says. “It was like, oh yeah, that’s right, Ray said we’re going there too.”
Both Saucony and New Balance pulled out all the stops to sign Simpson. Saucony presented Simpson with a set of personalized shoes in Colorado colors. New Balance also went with the personal touch. The company was looking to rebuild its running division, and they wanted to make Simpson the face of it.
They made that clear by taking Simpson to a New Balance factory in Lawrence, Mass. Simpson walked in the door and saw hundreds of smiling faces, all wearing black t-shirts with a silhouette of her own running form on the front. On the back of each shirt was printed the phrase: We’re making shoes for Jenny Barringer. That gesture wasn’t the only reason New Balance went from afterthought to the company Simpson eventually signed with, but it’s something Simpson remembers fondly to this day, as she enters her 11th year with NB.
“To be 23 years old and walk in, there’s hundreds of people who know who you are, they’re excited you’re there, they’re all wearing t-shirts with your running silhouette on them, that was a little bit wild and surreal.”
***DIII Star Goes Pro
Nick Symmonds‘ experience turning professional couldn’t have been much different from Jenny Simpson’s. Like Simpson, Symmonds had dominated in college, racking up seven NCAA titles. But he won them at the Division III level, at tiny Willamette (Ore.) University. When Symmonds graduated in 2006, with a 1:47.34 personal best in the 800 meters, not a single agent reached out offering to represent him.
A few weeks later, he finished second at USAs, running a huge PB of 1:45.83.
“Everything changed,” Symmonds says. “I had agents rushing to shove cards in my hand and companies like Nike and Reebok calling me direct.”
Though Symmonds interviewed several agents over the phone, he did zero background research, beyond a brief phone call with his former college coach, Kelly Sullivan. Symmonds signed with Chris Layne, whom he had never met in person, because Sullivan, whom Symmonds trusted with his life, told him Layne was a class act.
Unlike Simpson, who shopped around and made it clear she was open to all offers, Symmonds immediately pigeonholed himself when it came to picking a shoe sponsor. At USAs, he had told the media that he wanted to run for Frank Gagliano, who was launching the Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene. But since OTC was a Nike-affiliated group, Symmonds’ public proclamation of affection for Gagliano killed his leverage in negotiations.
“All the other offers kind of dried up right after I said that,” Symmonds said. “I said Chris — and he knew this — you’ve gotta get another offer from somebody else or we’re never gonna get anything out of Nike. So I think he got a small offer from another company and then took that to Nike and Nike matched.”
***The More Offers, The Better
It’s crucial to keep an open mind when pursuing a professional contract, particularly when you consider that, for all but the most talented of athletes, the first contract they sign will also be their last.
“You never know until you know, until you go out there and shop the athlete around,” says Stephen Haas, who works under Layne at Total Sports and represents Edward Cheserek, who surprised many by signing with Skechers out of college in 2017. “If multiple companies are interested, then offers go up…There were a couple people [last] year that brought up figures to me and said well, other agents have told me I might be worth about this much, what do you think? I tell them the same thing every time: well how do you know that? How do you know that that’s what you’re worth? That’s just somebody guessing and telling you that, because they haven’t called up every shoe company.”
In theory, calling up every shoe company doesn’t sound too hard. In practice, it can be. Sometimes, a shoe company will refuse to work with a certain agent. In the fall of 2011, Matthew Centrowitz turned professional and was considering hiring Ray Flynn. The problem? Alberto Salazar, then head coach of the Nike Oregon Project, was pissed off at Flynn.
“Salazar declared that if Centro signed with Ray Flynn, they would not offer him and that he needed to sign with someone else,” says a source with knowledge of the situation.
Centrowitz instead signed with Ricky Simms, who also represented NOP stars Galen Rupp and Mo Farah, and soon after joined NOP. Salazar’s anger eventually passed — multiple Flynn clients signed with NOP in the following years.
****Make Sure Your Agent Is Looking After Your Best Interest
Ideally, an agent should attempt to get maximum value for each of their clients. That does not always happen.
“I had an athlete come up to me after NCAAs,” says a shoe company employee. “He had already signed with Nike. He’s kind of giving me a hard time — ‘How come you didn’t recruit me?’ And I was like, ‘Man, I tried. Your agent never told us and just never approached us once.’ And he was like, ‘Really? I told him to, and he said he did and he said you guys didn’t want to make an offer.’ You just see no effort on the agent’s side to go to another team, or they’ll just push them to Bowerman or NOP. That happens almost every year.”
Why would an agent turn down a potentially larger commission to funnel an athlete to a particular brand? Because no man is an island. Agents represent multiple clients. Nike sponsors, by far, the most athletes in the sport. Which means Nike also, indirectly, contributes the most of any brand to agents’ incomes. Though almost all agencies work with a variety of brands, maintaining a relationship with the Swoosh is crucial.
(John Capriotti, Nike’s vice president for global athletics marketing — the man who controls Nike’s purse strings when it comes to track & field — did not respond to an interview request for this story).
“Not all [agents], but sometimes, if they’re not super ethical, they’ll do what Nike wants them to do just to make sure everything stays kosher,” the shoe company source says. “Because what if they have another athlete that they recruited that year that needs a deal?”
But when it comes to signing a pro deal, money isn’t everything. One contract may offer a higher salary but prevent an athlete from working with their preferred coach. Though Symmonds cost himself money initially by declaring he would run for Gagliano (and therefore Nike), it appeared to be the right decision training-wise: he won five straight US titles with OTC and made two Olympic teams, which allowed him to recoup that lost income through bonuses. Most track & field athletes have a narrow window — one Olympic cycle, perhaps two — during their peak athletic years. They need to decide which is more important: the contract that offers the most money or the one that best allows them to maximize their athletic potential. Sometimes, they’re one and the same. But not always.
****Think Long Term
“I think there’s a misconception that the shoe company and the contract matter so much,” Simpson says. “Your everyday life, who coaches you, where you live, what event you want to do, those things are 95% of your life and 95% of what get you where you want to go…The best thing to do is surround yourself every day with the best training environment possible, and that’s how you’re going to make the most money in your career.”
“The biggest thing I wished I knew was I didn’t need to get the biggest contract up front,” says Alistair Cragg, a three-time Olympian for Ireland who now works as an agent under Tom Ratcliffe at Kimbia Athletics. “That was pounded into my head [coming out of college]. I wish I was told get into a position or a situation that is going to give me the best chance to succeed.”
Not all contracts are between athlete and shoe company. Northern Arizona Elite operates more like a professional soccer team: athletes sign a contract with NAZ Elite, which, in turn, has a separate sponsorship contract with HOKA ONE ONE. NAZ Elite athletes wear HOKA gear just as Manchester United players wear adidas shirts because of the club’s contract with adidas. Though NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario gets approval for each athlete he signs from Mike McManus, HOKA’s head of sports marketing, ultimately it’s Rosario who has control of the roster. Bonuses are paid by HOKA, not NAZ Elite, and the structure of bonuses is identical for each athlete, which Rosario loves.
“If Scott Fauble goes and runs 2:09 [in the marathon], his teammates know how much he made there and they’re happy for him,” Rosario says. “I’m not worried about bitterness or jealousy or anything, because they all know they have the same opportunities to make the same amount of money.”
Rosario says that, between their contracts, bonuses, and appearance fees, four of his athletes made over $100,000 in 2018. The NAZ Elite model is changing, however; starting with the collegiate class of 2020, athletes will negotiate their salaries with HOKA, not NAZ Elite, bringing them in line with other setups in the industry.
****Don’t Forget The Reduction Clause
Comparing contracts can be a complicated process. One may have a higher base salary, but how do the incentive structures or reduction clauses compare? What about medical and travel stipends? How long is each contract?
Coaching is also a key topic of discussion. If you sign with Nike and join a club like the Bowerman Track Club or Oregon Track Club, you don’t need to pay your coach, since Nike is already paying Jerry Schumacher and Mark Rowland. If you’re not working with a contracted coach, it can be more complicated. Many coaches charge for their services, though some won’t if they’re already drawing a salary as a college coach. A tip from former pro Phoebe Wright: if you’re going to be paying your coach, ask for your shoe company to include a coaching stipend.
“Let’s say you have two deals on the table: $100,000 or $90,000 plus a $10,000 coaching stipend,” Wright says. “If you planned on paying your coach $10,000 out of your salary, take the $90,000. Because that way you don’t have to pay the $1,500 in agent fees.”
All contracts negotiations start with the base salary.
“Just like if you’re taking a job, the biggest thing you might think of initially is the base, your salary,” says agent Dan Lilot. “And it’s often the most important part. But it’s not the only important part.”
One of the main reasons for that? Two dreaded words: reduction clauses. These are clauses inserted into a contract that allow shoe companies to reduce an athlete’s base salary should they fail to hit certain benchmarks in the previous season. These benchmarks vary from athlete to athlete but are generally tied to world/US rankings or making World/Olympic teams; for some of the very best athletes with aggressive contracts, even failing to win gold at a global championship could result in a reduction. Reduction clauses aren’t always enforced (it’s at the shoe company’s discretion), but they’re common across the industry.
On the flip side, there are rollover clauses. With a rollover clause, making an Olympic team or winning a medal doesn’t just earn you a one-time bonus; it increases your base salary for every year moving forward.
“People always focus on reductions, but nobody talks about rollovers,” says Spencer Nel, director of sports marketing at adidas. “It’s a performance-related contract. You enter into a contract to go out there and do A, B, and C that’s outlined in your contract. If they are doing A, B, and C, they have opportunities to significantly increase their earnings. If they are, unfortunately, not living up to expectations, there have to be clauses in there to protect the company versus athletes that are not making an effort as per the requirements.”
When British miler Josh Kerr turned pro in the summer of 2018 after winning three NCAA titles at the University of New Mexico, he was weighing two contract offers with similar base salaries, one from Nike and one from Brooks. The Nike contract offered bigger bonuses, but a harsh reduction clause: if Kerr missed an Olympic or World Championship team, he would be reduced by 50%. The Brooks contract did not contain a reduction clause (Brooks does not place reduction clauses in any of its contracts).
“That’s all that I had to hear,” says Kerr, who signed with Brooks and finished 6th in the 1500 at the 2019 World Championships. “That against guaranteed money, you’re stupid not to take it…That’s such a massive factor, standing on that start line at World Champs, or even the qualifiers, knowing that I’m going to be making the same amount of money regardless of how I run here. If there’s a fall or if there’s an injury throughout the season, I know that my company’s got my back.”
Also: being reduced hurts.
“As a runner, you invest all this emotional energy into your craft,” says Wright, who was reduced as a Nike athlete. “If you fail, you’re already beating yourself up. And then to have your employer come out and already say, well, yeah, you did a crappy job, we’re going to, in a very real way, show you how much we’re devaluing you to our company…when you’re already that low, it’s really hard, mentally, to come back from.”
Jesse Williams, who spent a dozen years as head of sports marketing at Brooks before leaving the company in 2017, urges athletes to print out and read all contract offers they receive before making a decision. Only then can they know exactly what they’re signing up for.
That is a lesson Wright, who ended her career with Brooks, says she learned the hard way.
Wright turned pro in 2010, after winning the NCAA 800 title at the University of Tennessee. She knew she wanted to stay with her college coach, J.J. Clark, and chose as her agent Wenston Riley, Clark’s brother-in-law at the time. Riley was relatively new to the business, which Wright knew was a risk, but she also believed that his close connection to Clark would make things easier and, as one of his few clients, she would receive more attention than at a more established agency.
Because Riley was her agent, Wright viewed him as the boss when it came to contract negotiations. She didn’t meet with anyone at a shoe company. After all, wasn’t that what she had hired Riley to do?
Now, 10 years later, Wright believes she “messed up” by not being more involved. One of the most important messages — from Wright, and almost all of the athletes interviewed for this story — was this: remember that the agent works for the athlete, not the other way around.
“You get thrown into this world where you’re a boss and you have to accept it and game up, and nobody tells athletes that,” Wright says.
Wright received several offers, but in the end it came down to two: one from Nike, and one from Brooks. Wright says Riley told her that the base salary of the Nike deal was higher (she says she later found out it wasn’t) and had higher bonuses. Wright also says Riley told her that it contained a reduction clause, but that it could only be triggered once during the life of the contract. Riley says he showed Wright both contracts and doesn’t recall telling Wright she could only be reduced once; he thought Wright knew she could be reduced multiple times.
“It’s written in black and white [in the final contract], so I don’t understand how it’s not explained,” Riley says. “I’m not understanding where she missed that, but maybe I didn’t explain or specify that it was an annual deal.”
Like many athletes coming off a successful college career, Wright believed she would continue to improve. She felt that it was worth it to gamble and take the potentially larger Nike offer, rather than the more secure, reduction-free Brooks offer. And, she believed, even if she was reduced, it would only be a one-time thing.
That’s where Wright says she made her second mistake. When she agreed to sign with Nike, Wright first signed a short-form, “good faith” contract that outlined the terms of the deal without any legalese, followed by a final, long-form contract.
“It’s like 30 pages or whatever and then you sign that and that’s the binding contract and it overrides the ‘good faith’ contract,” Wright says. “It was kind of like the terms & agreements at the end of an iTunes agreement.”
Wright read through the short-form agreement and thought she understood what it meant: she could only be reduced once. That was her understanding, so she signed it, and eventually signed the long-form version, too. But that’s not what the long form of the contract specified, and, ultimately, Wright would be reduced multiple times. All told, signing with Nike over Brooks wound up costing her hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Kids need to pay the $500 or whatever it is to go spend three hours with a contract lawyer, going line-by-line describing each specific scenario and what that sentence is going to look like for your life in three years,” Wright says. “Because one sentence can drastically change what your career path looks like.”
More: Part III of the series looking at how Grant Fisher and Morgan McDonald went pro in 2019 can be found here: LRC How To Turn Pro In Track & Field, Part III: Case Studies of Grant Fisher and Morgan McDonald.
Part I of the series, on how to find an agent and whether they’re worth it, can be found here: LRC How To Turn Pro In Track & Field, Part I: Finding an Agent.
If you enjoyed this article, we imagine you’ll love the following series we did in 2018: LRC Pro Runners’ Salaries: How Much Do Professional Runners Make? We Unveil One of The Sport’s Biggest Secrets.
Talk about the series on our fan forum/messageboard. MB: LRC Investigates: How To Turn Pro In Track & Field.