Lauren Fleshman was barred from wearing temporary promotional tattoos in the New York City Marathon.
Race officials intervened, telling Fleshman the tattoos violated marketing rules set forth by track and field’s world governing body. Hastily, the tattoos were rubbed off with alcohol pads. But she had made a point.
“It’s crazy you don’t own your own skin,” Fleshman, of Eugene, Ore., said after the race.
A new international rule that goes into effect Sunday will give professional track and field athletes greater opportunity to display logos on their uniforms. And, they hope, it will enhance their chances of attracting corporate sponsorships to help finance their careers in a sport struggling for visibility and credibility.
The rule, which permits a second corporate logo in addition to a clothing/shoe-company logo on singlets, is viewed as a welcome first step. Still, many seem confused by what will be allowed at various competitions, where the logo rule can be tightened or relaxed. And an immediate brightening of the sport’s dimming presence is not expected.
Track and field will be the centerpiece of the 2012 London Olympics, but its primacy has eroded at the elite level outside the Summer Games. Engaging East-West rivalries disappeared with the collapse of communism, and corrosive doping scandals undermined the sport’s credibility.
The global economic downturn also has made it more difficult to attract sponsorships while widening the income gap between the sport’s superstars and its less visible strivers.
Adam Nelson of the United States, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, once auctioned himself on eBay and secured an endorsement with a medical technology firm, but it was a one-month deal worth $12,000, not a long-term investment, according to USA Track and Field.
In 2009, after his contract with Nike expired, the French pole-vaulter Romain Mesnil underscored his plight by appearing in a video that made it seem as if he were running naked with a pole through the streets of Paris.
The more permissive logo rule “is a step in the right direction, but the bigger issue is that we need a greater number of sponsors,” said Ray Flynn, a prominent agent. “Outside the shoe companies, there have not been a lot of companies wanting to get involved in the sport.”
Usain Bolt, a Jamaican sprint champion, aspires to be the first track and field athlete to earn $10 million a year. That is a hefty income by most standards, but relative pocket change compared with the $40-million-plus that the soccer superstar Lionel Messi is said to earn yearly in salary and endorsements.
Top marathon runners, who usually compete twice a year, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance, prize and bonus money for a victory in New York, Boston, London, Chicago or Berlin. But, unlike professional football, basketball and baseball players, who rely on collective bargaining, track and field athletes compete — and negotiate — as individuals.
Like Bolt, Stephanie Brown Trafton of the United States is an Olympic champion. She won gold in the discus at the 2008 Beijing Games. But she competes in a relatively obscure event. Her basic Nike contract, she said, pays her $25,000 a year with an additional $25,000 to $30,000 available in performance bonuses — the equivalent of an entry-level salary in engineering, for which she holds a degree.
As meager as Brown Trafton’s income is for a professional athlete, she and many others with salaried shoe contracts seem unlikely to benefit immediately from the new logo rule. Companies like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, which provide the financial spine of the sport by spending tens of millions of dollars a year, want exclusivity to protect their brands. They will very likely prohibit a second logo on singlets or offer smaller contracts to share space, except perhaps for select superstars with clout, athletes, agents and track officials said.
Athletes with shoe-company sponsorships will “have to determine whether they want to give that up to have multiple sponsorships,” Brown Trafton said. “Most will take the main sponsor. It will pay more.”
Nike did not respond to a request for comment. Chris McGuire, the head of sports marketing for Adidas America, said in a statement, “We support athletes and recognize the benefit partners and sponsorship can provide to support track and field athletes’ training.”
Eventually, athletes hope the inclusion of a second corporate logo on their uniforms will give them greater bargaining power.
“I love Nike, but at the same time it’s important to remember that athletes are not employees of shoe companies; they’re independent contractors,” said Nick Symmonds, the United States’ top 800-meter runner. “It hurts my leverage if the shoe company has a monopoly over advertising dollars.”
Be careful what you wish for, said Mark Wetmore, a prominent agent. “If the shoe companies went away, you could have 100 logos and nobody would be as well off as they are today,” he said.
For now, athletes on the margins — those who have shoe contracts that provide only apparel or performance bonuses, or who have no endorsement contracts at all — could best take advantage of the new logo rule with sponsorships that pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Paul Litchfield, a second-tier American pole-vaulter, has tried to distinguish himself by competing in a uniform that resembles a tuxedo. But his creativity has not translated into endorsements. Last summer, with $5.59 in his checking account, $378.87 in savings and $4,501.35 in credit card debt, according to his Web site, Litchfield sold T-shirts to finance his trip to the national championships.
In late December, a friend paid for a tank of gas so he could drive from Northern California to attend a pole-vaulting camp in Southern California.
“I’ve never even gotten a pair of free shoes,” said Litchfield, who finished 10th at the 2008 Olympic trials.
He noted ruefully that athletes like himself who might benefit most from an additional logo on their uniforms were also those least likely to be shown on television at meets.
“What sponsor is going to give you money to be on your shirt if no one sees it?” Litchfield said. “You might as well put it on your pajamas.”
Ben Bruce competed at the 2011 world track and field championships for the United States in the steeplechase. And while his affiliation with the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club provided coaching, housing and health insurance, Bruce said he could never persuade Nike to offer him a contract beyond performance bonuses.
So, with the Olympics and his marriage approaching later this year, Bruce left the Oregon Track Club, set up a training base in Flagstaff, Ariz., and recently signed with a new agent, Flynn, in hopes of attracting a corporate sponsor.
“Maybe a little group goes to Starbucks and we work 20 hours a week and they pay us like managers and we put a Starbucks logo on our uniforms,” Bruce said, echoing an Olympic work program formerly sponsored by Home Depot. “Stuff like that could be a huge turnaround.”