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"Professional" runners

Megan asked, in a comment down below, about the “average salary for runners who land a shoe contract,” and whether there’s a significant difference between sprinters and distance runners.

This is an article I’ve wanted to write for years, but can’t, and some limited discussion with other track writers suggests to me that the sources I’d need to talk to are not interested in talking. Sadly, there are several dozen talented athletes every year asking the same question: I just finished a successful NCAA career. Now what?

Some people (Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, Shalane Flanagan, etc.) have enough success and following that they can land a pretty decent contract right away, but let’s leave out the freakishly talented right now and consider someone who’s going to battle their way up from the bottom. (This is going to go long, so I’ll move to the extended entry now.)

The absolute base level of sponsorship is local. You get some free shoes from the local store, maybe a fixed “merchandise” budget (a few hundred bucks,) and in return you wear their uniform when you race. This can be pretty heady if you’re a weekend warrior, but it’s a lousy way to fund Olympic ambitions; all it does is cut down on how much you’re spending on running. The next level up is pretty much the same: equipment from a “national” brand, like a shoe company. (Note that the really big brands like Nike or Adidas seldom come down to this level, though you can get a deal like this through belonging to a club which is sponsored in this way—see the Adidas/BAA connection.

Now, our hypothetical recent grad is cleaning up in his local road races, and his sponsor is pleased with the exposure they’re getting. They’re both ready for the next level: a travel budget. The sponsor starts paying travel and entry expenses for a few large-scale races. This is particularly common for marathoners, who seldom get to focus their training on local races. Alternately, the sponsor could offer, instead of reimbursing travel expenses, an incentive program. They may pay for place in certain races, or they may just match any prize money our athlete wins. Often, an athlete with an incentive plan will then arrange for the race itself to cover part of their travel expenses, usually the hotel.

My coach in Pennsylvania had a short and successful masters career with a sponsorship like this. He got a gear budget and an incentive plan; he would wrangle hotel rooms through the elite athlete programs for various marathons (I remember Columbus, Pittsburgh, Boston and Cal International,) then pick up a few hundred bucks in prize money for placing in the masters (over 40) category, which his sponsor would double. It was a nice sideline, and he probably made about as much as I do working as a freelance reporter, but he still had to work a full-time job, albeit one which happened to be very conducive to training. I would bet that somewhere between 75% and 90% of all runners who are “sponsored” never get much higher than this.

The incentive plan is a constant for every sponsored runner at this level and above. It starts with matching prize money, maybe placing at big races. Going up the scale, there start to be cash bonuses for things like making a U.S. championship final, making a national team (bonuses vary by event: you’ll do better making an Olympic team than, say, making the team for World Cross, and both will pay better than an ekiden team. On the other hand, just getting a uniform with “USA” on it is a pretty damn nice bonus, the first time.) If your agent is good and your stock is rising, your contract has bonuses written in for beating certain times, possibly including ARs and WRs. If you’re Paula Radcliffe, the incentive part of your contract is pretty awe-inspiring.

Incentives are great for our hypothetical athlete for a while, but he wants to make a big push and make the national level. He wants to run doubles every day and get nine hours of sleep. And he doesn’t want to have to dash for cash every two weeks to make the rent. (I wish I knew what the average prize money award was, but you’d be doing very, very well to pull in $1k/month even with sponsor incentive matching.) Maybe he can do this by joining one of the training groups which have been pretty successful over the last five years: the Farm Team, Hansons/Brooks ODP, one of the Team USA groups, etc. Maybe, if he scores a big race at the right time, like winning a national road championship or winning a marathon, he can get a stipend from his sponsor. These are not usually big checks; they start with a few thousand, but they can keep an athlete from starving while he quits his job (or goes part-time) and puts more time and effort into his running. (The RRCA’s “Roads Scholarships” also play this role.)

This is the level where your Deena Kastors start out. Deena started by winning one of the first USATF “Fall Nationals” cross-country championships. She got one of the first Roads Scholarships, stepped it up, and started making World Cross teams. Gradually, her incentives let her become a full-time runner, and the stipend came up behind her.

In any given Olympic Trials final, excepting some of the sprints, I would bet that about half of the finalists are full-time professional athletes, and the other half have some kind of part-time or full-time job to support their training. The full-time athletes can be doing pretty well. Now we’re starting to talk about the ones who have “made it.” I won’t name names here, but I know some Olympians in their first seasons out of the NCAA had contracts worth, annually, two to four times my salary. Managed well, an athlete can put away enough in their career that they will not have to work when they “retire” in their mid- to late-30s. Lynn Jennings did this; Joan Benoit Samuelson did it as well, and you can bet Deena will.

“Name” athletes start seeing race income nearly equaling their sponsorship money, from European track promoters or major international marathons, because they are “draws” who will bring spectators to the events. I heard (and I don’t have a cite here, so it may have been a rumor) that Khalid Khannouchi made as much as a million dollars simply for running Chicago three times; it happened that he set a WR on one of those runs, so Chicago looked wise instead of profligate, and Khalid probably brought in as much in prize money and incentives as he did in appearance money.

The last part of the question is, is there much difference between distance runners and sprinters? Yes, and no. The ladder is much the same, starting with gear and working up through incentives and travel money to stipends and finally rich contracts. The difference is that sprinters’ incentives are structured differently, because their competitive opportunities are different. Also, there are more sprinters at the rich end of the ladder; it’s rare to see an Olympic Trials sprint finalist who isn’t a full-time athlete, and the exceptions are usually collegians (like Jeremy Wariner or Lauryn Williams) who will have rich contracts waiting when they leave the NCAA. The richest sprinters are richer, too; Maurice Greene probably made more in his four or five years at the top than Paul Tergat is likely to, though Tergat’s money will go much farther. (Tergat is already unimaginably rich by Kenyan standards.)

The two missing pieces are these: figures, and progressions. Runners are understandably secretive about the details of their contracts, and the actual figures I’ve heard I’m reluctant to connect to names for that reason. It’s the workplace convention against comparing salaries (I don’t know if one exists in your workplace, but it does in mine.) There can be some real jealousy about contract terms on the circuit, especially between events (I doubt there is a single hammer thrower in the USA who is a full-time athlete.) Agents, also, don’t discuss such things with the media.

This is leading to the second problem, which is that athletes not far enough up on the pay scale to have an agent don’t know where to start. If you’re talking with agents as soon as your NCAA eligibility has ended, you’re probably good enough not to worry about it. But dozens don’t get that kind of attention, and they don’t know how to bridge the gap between their scholarship and a sponsorship stipend. There was once an attempt at compiling a “post-collegiate athlete’s survival guide,” but it faded when it wasn’t maintained.

I’d love to see a writer who knows (or can find out) some basic sponsorship figures rewrite the Survival Guide, and put it up on the web, perhaps as a wiki. Then we’d really have some useful advice for developing athletes.

Comments

Thanks for the explanation—I really appreciate your taking the time. I hope that Survival Guide happens someday!

Take care,

Megan

Hey, this is a great article explaining the general sponsorship process for runners. Can you believe that this is probably the only source on the internet that explains this stuff!?! Actually, some of the questions you ask above, I am trying to find answers to in my blog, “The Professional Runner”. I really think there needs to be more information out there about runner’s sponsorship opportunities. Thanks again for writing a great article.

Matt

where do runners go after they leave the ncaa

Hey, Do you have any more recent news on Post collgiate athletics? Anything helpful or related to this article?

This is a great article and just wanted to congradulate adn thank you. Keep up the good work!!

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