“…you are required to wear the Nike Team USA apparel …. at all team functions throughout the trip, including at the athlete hotel, during training, press conferences, competition, and award ceremonies. Accordingly, please pack ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel…” – USA Track and Field
“I’m a businessman. I don’t sign contracts that don’t fully define the terms of the contract.” – Nick Symmonds
My son, Loren, frequently lectures me about the business of sport. Ever since his days playing high school basketball, he has studied the way in which athletes, coaches, owners, and media companies transform simple games into complex empires worth millions or billions. Ask him about Michael Jordan, and Loren might analyze his game, but more likely will tell you how Jordan invented the modern idea of a superstar as a brand, rather than merely a player.
Being more sentimental, I still tend to think of famous athletes transporting themselves through a realm of pure intentions, motivated by the Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger, and letting their agents handle the grubby details of cashing in on their accomplishments. But that’s naive, and when I reflect for even a few seconds, I realize that there’s no contradiction in having a professional athlete also be a competent businessperson, and that love of one’s sport and looking out for one’s financial interest are not mutually exclusive.
It’s with that perspective that I consider the case of Nick Symmonds, who has made international news this week by refusing to sign the USATF’s “Statement of Conditions” for being on the U.S. team for the World Track and Field Championships in Beijing. That is, I think it’s wrong to see Symmonds as either a folk hero fighting for the little guy, or a petulant ingrate thumbing his nose at the national governing body of his sport. Both caricatures ignore the fact that as he himself states, he’s a businessman and he’s making a business decision.
Symmonds used to be sponsored by Nike, now he’s sponsored by Brooks. The competition between running shoe/running apparel companies is every but as intense as the competition between athletes. Brooks has been successful in recent years by focusing on the running market, and by not trying to compete with the much larger Nike in the generic sports apparel market. According to a 2013 article by Kurt Badenhausen in Forbes Magazine:
“Brooks eschews expensive media ad campaigns and pours money into grassroots marketing. It invests in events and specialty run retailers. It relies heavily on social media and word of mouth.”
Sponsoring the Hanson-Brooks team and Brooks Beast athletes like Symmonds, Katie Mackey, and Cas Loxsom helps Brooks establish their credibility as a running shoe company, as well as their “Run Happy” brand. As a business person, why wouldn’t Symmonds be eager to maximize HIS value to his sponsor?
Some have jeered at Symmonds that his balking at signing the Statement of Conditions was a cynical move, since he knew he had no chance to medal in Beijing. Excuse me, but why is it cynical to take actions consistent with the success of one’s business? I have no doubt that Symmonds would prefer to be running in Beijing, but it seems to me that insisting on his freedom to represent his sponsor to the greatest extent possible is a reasonable position for someone whose livelihood depends on his value to that sponsor. If he thought he was seriously hurting his value by refusing to sign, he would have signed. That’s not cynicism and it’s not idealism; its rational self-interest.
Symmonds is a “brand” in the sense that his personality and name recognition have a value. His brand is affected by everything he does in the public eye, including winning the U.S. championships, participating in beer miles, writing frank books about his life in sport, and taking stands vis-a-vis his rights to market himself. He’s responsible for the value of his “brand,” just as Brooks and Nike are responsible for their brands. Has Symmonds hurt his brand by taking his stand against USATF? It appears to be just the opposite. Even if he doesn’t get to run in Beijing, and it seems highly unlikely that could happen, Symmonds is getting huge (mostly sympathetic) publicity as someone willing to stand up for a principle. I would guess that the folks at Brooks aren’t complaining.
Is Nike evil? No, they’re just very, very big with vast resources to put behind marketing their products. They’ve made a big investment in USATF, and they want a return on that investment. And so that puts USATF in a difficult position. On the one hand, the national governing body of the sport needs to support individual athletes who demand the right to market themselves and their talents, and on the other hand, USATF needs to secure big sponsors to support the massive expenses that go with serving their diverse constituencies, including but not limited to professional athletes. In PR terms, this hasn’t been a very good year for USATF. Symmonds has put USATF right back in the spotlight of bad publicity just as they were preparing to send the world’s best track and field team to the World Championships. Symmonds has made his play, now it’s up to USATF to figure out how to shore up their brand.
Your move, USATF.