At a professional track and field meet in Fort Worth, Texas on July 20, more than two dozen athletes, all sponsored by Nike or a subsidiary, ran in five races. The results listed each race as a separate invitational—conveniently numbered one through five. Read each event’s results sheet and something sticks out: Nike athletes aren’t the only ones running multiples; they’re almost exclusively the only ones racing at all—the stray Adidas or unattached athlete strewn in between. In between a few personal records were times some could’ve jogged. A few days later in Texas, invitationals six through 10 took place, while a group of runners in Florida did the same by splitting a meet into two separate events on two different days.
The reason? Quotas. Many track and field athletes have to compete and represent their brands in a certain number of events annually to fulfill contractual obligations with sponsors. Nike typically requires a 10-race minimum—a standard number but one that decorated sprinter Allyson Felix notes is “absolutely up for negotiation”—to avoid the enactment of reduction clauses.
Those requirements are common, several track and field professionals tell Sportico, particularly in deals with Nike or competitor Adidas. Felix, now with Athleta, had quotas in her contracts with both other brands, and she’s sympathetic to runners trying to meet the requirements.
“What a lot of athletes feel forced to do right now is like the equivalent of LeBron James going out and playing 3-on-3 basketball at a park in his Lakers jersey and hoping that the Lakers will see that as valuable and still pay him his full salary—it just doesn’t make sense,” Felix said. “But a lot of track athletes are scared, desperate and don’t have a lot of clarity from brands on what is going to happen to their income.”
Though competition has been limited due to the pandemic, contractual obligations remain.
“I understand why there’s a minimum competition rule, and I would guess that almost every single company has it,” said Jesse Williams, former senior sports marketing manager at Brooks Running who now owns Sound Running, an events, training and coaching company.
Williams said Brooks had its own competition requirement, although he recalls the number being about half of Nike’s. “The rule exists so you don’t have people showing up twice a year [and] taking advantage of the system. It’s essentially a good faith rule. But the reality is that in a year like this, it’s almost impossible for anybody to have raced that many times.”
Through these clauses, sponsors can reduce athlete payouts should they fail to meet benchmarks. Other sports see similar language. An NFL agent said some of his client contracts include a requirement to either play or dress for a certain number of games. A pair of non-track New Balance athletes confirmed versions of competition requirements to receive full pay, but neither believed reductions in salary for not meeting those would ever be enforced—especially not right now.
With COVID cancellations hitting the world of track and field as hard as any other sport, those numbers are harder to reach than in any other normal season. At the same time, sponsors and brands are taking their own financial hits. Athletes are trying to fulfill their requirements in any way they can to avoid possible reductions—even if it means running five races in 95-degree Lone Star state heat or spending two days in the Florida summer sun as COVID-19 cases soar in the state.
Those at-risk sponsor dollars are even more critical to track and field athletes. Around 50% of U.S. track athletes who rank in the Top 10 in their event made less than $15,000 annually from their sport as of 2014, according to the Track and Field Athletes Association. While that number has increased slightly, race prize money remains generally low. Usain Bolt made more than $32 million leading up to the 2016 Olympics, according to Forbes, most of which came from endorsements (Bolt’s deal with Puma paid him $10 million annually).
Some also came from appearance fees, but Bolt only earned $10,000 for every race he won that year in the Diamond League, an annual series of elite track and field competitions.
Sponsor money for many is a lifeline. Felix said she believes many athletes “absolutely” fear a legitimate threat to their income if they can’t compete or meet sponsor requirements. But while common, these quotas aren’t universal.
“I have raced when I’ve felt that it was safe and beneficial to my training for Tokyo, but only then,” Felix, who has won nine Olympic medals, said. “I’m not penalized if I’m not able to run a certain number of meets because I still have value to [Athleta] even at a time when there are not professional level competitions being offered. They really see my value on and off the track.”
Sprinter Manteo Mitchell, who earned a silver medal in the 2012 games, said he only knows the clause to exist in contracts with “big” companies, citing Nike as an example. The Portland, Ore., based brand did not respond to Sportico’s request for comment. In June, Nike reported a sales decline of 38% year-over-year and an unexpected quarterly net loss as its business suffered from temporary COVID-19 store closures. In July, the sneaker giant announced it would be downsizing after the losses, eliminating at least 500 jobs in Oregon and even more globally. Nike said the cuts will result in termination costs of $200 to $250 million.
“The bigger companies with more athletes on their rosters are in tough spots. They probably don’t want to cut athletes as a whole, so they could enact a rule like this and basically cut 20% off their bottom line based on contracts,” Williams said. “People are worried about one or two doing this, which is why they’re running these made-up races or doing things like the [Texas] sprint meet. In terms of satisfying the contract, it makes you laugh because you’re not really representing a brand on different stages.”
Williams added that smaller sponsors with fewer athletes have smaller financial investments at stake, making it an easier monetary hit to “ride out.” He cited brands like Brooks and Hoka One One who are doing just that and not penalizing athletes. But not all have that same security.