How Much Money Do Track and Field Athletes Make?

 

Open up your local newspaper or do a web search, and you can easily view the income levels of top professional athletes in baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, etc. Try to find similar data for track and field athletes and you’ll pretty much come up empty.

There are many things that cause this lack of public transparency about professional track and field athlete earnings – not the least of which is that the primary source of this income (shoe company sponsors) is negotiated privately with each individual athlete/agent, and the contracts often contain performance trigger points and bonus clauses that add unpredictability to the contract value. Also, sources that are visible like prize money are generally too small to generate much public attention.

This “secrecy” may be an inevitable element of our athlete’s “independent contractor” status but in some ways it has not helped advance the sport, has not helped attract young athletes, and has not helped the negotiating leverage of our athletes.

As part of a broader study of our sport’s strengths and weaknesses,I took a shot at determining “How much money do Track and Field athletes make?” Some of the data was lifted from the information received by the USATF Foundation from over 250 elite athlete grant applications, and some of it is based on other soft sources including interviews with athletes in each event and with sports agents.

The data in the charts below should be viewed as rough estimates, along with recognition that income sources for our athletes fluctuate widely year to year. The inconsistency of the income streams is one of many challenges that are our athletes face.  Also, no attempt has been made to factor in the less tangible, but sometimes significant, value associated with training center services, in-kind support (e.g. discounted medical care), and special support programs (e.g. USOC’s health insurance program for top ranked athletes and the USATF Foundation’s free career mentoring and job search assistance programs) that many of our athletes enjoy.

What value can come from transparency about professional track & field athlete income levels?

First, this is a timely topic as the sport debates issues like uniform advertising restrictions.  Here are a few possible additional benefits:

– The data could bring clarity to the critical need for our sport to explore business model and branding improvements and/or athlete contractual models that could elevate the sport, “grow the pie”, and enhance income opportunities for our athletes.
– The data could inform young athletes and top collegians – and help them make fact-based decisions about their career choices. Today some high potential athletes underestimate the potential of a professional track & field career….and some other athletes futilely pursue  professional aspirations that are unrealistic.
– The data could help our athletes approach sponsorship negotiations in a more informed and confident manner
– The data could raise public awareness that:

  • We really are a true professional sport – – many people still perceive Olympic sports as being “amateur”, and
  • Our nation’s aspiring Olympians need more support – – we are one of few nations that does not provide government financial support to Olympic sports – – so we are wholly dependent on corporate and private sources

The attached charts include estimated ranges of “typical” income levels for athletes in each event and ranking category as well as the sources of these income levels

Summary of other findings, including “quotes” from some of the athletes/agents I interviewed:

– Our sport has a very steep pyramid of income opportunities. A select few enjoy a very good living…though even they can fall hard in a short period if performance lags or injuries intervene.
– The top variables that affect an athlete’s earnings realization are “world ranking” and “event”. The tables below are organized around these two factors. In addition these variables can effect an athlete’s earnings realization:

  • an athlete’s age and perceived future potential to achieve a lower ranking or win medals;
  • past Olympic or World Championship medals & past USA National titles;
  • the simple but powerful label of ‘Olympian’ for those who have ever achieved this status;
  • charisma/”beauty” & perceived fan engagement skill;
  • agent quality & ability/standing  in the industry to solicit offers from multiple shoe sponsors

– There is wide variation across each event and within the highest rankings. In aggregate though, combining all T&F events:

  • Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.) and
  • Approximately 20% of our athletes in top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.
  • Athletes outside of a top 10 USA ranking, other than some sprinters, milers, and distance runners, can expect to face very limited (if any) income support.

– In general I did not find significant differences between male and female athletes’ income amounts at the same ranking levels (but there are exceptions).
– Distance runners generally enjoy the highest earnings opportunities of all T&F events at each USA and World ranking level, due to their endemic sponsors, year-round competitive seasons and due to road racing and it’s broad domestic market (and thus the distance events in the TABLES below reflect USA ranking (rather than WORLD ranking). However, the number of athletes who have dedicated themselves to the quest to be a professional distance runner is much greater than for any other event….so the competition for income sources and dilution of earnings opportunities is also greater among distance runners than for any other event grouping.
– “The reductions built into shoe company contracts are steep. The bigger the contract the bigger the reduction. A typical plan is that if an athlete misses a ranking then he/she loses 25% the first year and then 25% or more again the following year if it happens again. There is very little income security aside from top end performances year in and year out. It is not unusual for both Olympic and World Champ finalists in key events to not get re-signed by their company the following year. It is definitely a futures market as everyone pays early on potential, but not on experience. Often a strong new post-collegiate athlete’s first contract is the best one they’ll get unless they go beyond the expectations of that shoe company.”
– “Potential is king”….“it’s feast or famine”….there’s a narrow pyramid of income opportunity at the top then a sharp drop-off….conundrum about whether to jump at first contract offer or wait ‘til performance reaches higher level.
– There’s no “minor league” in our sport that provides modest income opportunities and bridges an athlete after college (scholarships, low living expenses) as they strive to make it to the T&F “major league.”
– Group Training Centers are critical. The top Centers provide for coaching, training partners, injury support and prevention, and much more. They also facilitate an efficient use of limited sponsor and donated dollars…and are funded today by the USOC, USATF Foundation Distance Project, High Performance Training Center grants, Running USA grant, community and corporate sponsors.
– Talented distance runners today are faced with the tough choice of whether to put primary focus on lower income track & field success (e.g. Olympic and world championship team glory/representation) or higher income road and marathon circuit success.

 

USA PROFESSIONAL TRACK & FIELD

INCOME STUDY

 

– Typical Agent fees are 15%.  Dollars shown are pre-tax.
– Dollar amounts below reflect total of sponsorship contracts and bonuses, prize money, grants, and stipends. No estimated value is included for part-time job income, career support, health insurance or injury support services, training center services, or tuition grants

Track Salaries

Track Salaries


 Track Salaries

 

Track Salaries

 

 

Comments

  1. michael roth says:

    The data shows why we have no medal contenders in the Race Walk events. USATF, USATF Foundation, Shoe Companies, USOC, NCAA, NFHS, etc offer $0 is support. Fix the problem!

  2. Adam Nelson says:

    Actually, I think this says that if you want to win, you have to do it on your own first. I empathize with your position, but it’s, also, part of the problem. We have a system based on entitlement. As a result, everyone fights for the same dollars from the same small pie. The farther away your event lies from the premiere events (100, mile and marathon) the more you fight over federation dollars exclusively. Unfortunately, that’s the smallest piece of our collective pie.

    By the way, I do think people like Trevor Barron are changing things for the walk.

    • Michael Roth says:

      No one is looking for a handout, just a seat at the table. Right now, outside of 1 young man, no one is even allowed in the house. You cannot get to the level needed to reach an IAAF standard in an event with ZERO developmental structure in the HS or College systems. Trevor is an exception to the rule, the 4 leaf clover. If he were hurt tomorrow, we’d be right back to having absolutely no support. You cannot grow a garden unless you tend to the crops. Right now USATF does everything it can to ignore the event and all the other organizations actively campaign against it. USATF could spend $0 on the 100m and we’d still have finalists. They are self supporting athletes because there is a place for them to develop. The fact that they and $ on the sprints is like pouring water into a full bucket, its just wasted, especially when others are thirsty.

      For the kids who compete in Jr Olympics at HS ages, they race a 3000m event. Within 5 years they need to improve their speed by 25% over that distance and do an event that is almost 7 times longer with no system of development to guide them along that path. Imagine having to throw the shot 25% further than you did in HS and having it weight almost 7 times more than the 12lbs you threw then without any coaches to develop you along the way because they don’t offer it in college and USATF ignored it completely.

  3. mark lattimore says:

    I think its our own fault. We only place importance on our sport every four years. We should follow the model of basketball, football and baseball and create some type of league. I feel like a guy like mark cuban would put up money to support one of the the most popular sports in the world. There is no connection to our sport in the us especially because there are no teams thus no fans from particular cities gain a connection to these athletes.

  4. John Copeland says:

    I appreciate the break-down, but I’m not sure where the real debate is here. If we want professional track and field athletes to be like other professional athletes both in stardom and pay — to have cultural capital and cash-money capital –, then we should look and see what works for other pro sports and follow suit. The sport has to do what its athletes do: compete. Track and field has to compete with other sports for the attention of the popular imagination and the bounty of financial benefits that come with it.

  5. Craig Wise says:

    The real reason why our track athletes don’t make as much money is because they are not featured that much on TV as compared to other sports. Over the years, our governing body has not much of a job in getting our sport on the networks consistently. My kids growing up on youth track always wondered why they could see jump rope nationals on TV, but not track & field.

    Coach Wise

  6. SPEAKING UP says:

    THIS IS THE REASON SO MANY OF OUR ATHLETES ARE PRESSURED TO DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO WIN IN FEAR OF LOOSING CONTRACTS YEAR AFTER YEAR. IT IS SO MUCH PRESSURE PLACE ON THESE ATHLETES TO COMPETE AT A CERTAIN LEVEL THEY DON’T HAVE TIME TO ACTUALLY ENJOY WHAT THEY ARE DOING TO THE FULLEST . IF THEY HAVE ONE BAD YEAR OR ONE INJURY THEY ARE AT RISK OF LOOSING THEIR CONTRACT OR FEAR OF REDUCTIONS . MANY I AM SURE FEAR BEING IN POVERTY DAY BY DAY . THESE YOUNG ATHELETES DESERVE THE CHANCE TO HAVE MORE SPONSORS BESIDES SHOE COMPANIES. HOPEFULLY SOMEONE WILL EVENTUALLY STAND UP AND STOP TREATING TRACK AND FIELD LIKE THE ORPHAN SPORT . OUR TRACK AND FIELD ATHLETES ALL TRAIN AND WORK HARD , NOT ONLY THE OLYMPIC YEARS BUT ALL YEAR AROUND . THEY NEED TO GET THE SAME PAYDAY AS NFL, NBA , TENNIS , GOLD , ETC.

  7. This makes an athlete want to go visit Victor Conte or Ferrari.

  8. gary rowbury says:

    Your article seems to state the situation just about the way it is statistically. Not only for U.S. athletes but throughout the world. T&F enjoys a larger audience outside of the U.S. since we put so much interest in the betting sports like baseball, basketball, hockey, and football and now NASCAR. The lion share of advertising dollars goes to these sports and anything left is split with any other sports that can garner TV support or can attract bettors in Vegas or Atlantic City. As far as I know neither city will accept bets on Track and Field events as they do in Europe. That may not be the best way to increase interest in the sport but it is a way.
    As Speaking Up states, fear of loss of income is one of the reasons that athletes feel compelled to do anything to advance their position or maintain their world rankings. For some nations the lower ranges of your stated incomes would provide income far in excess of their national averages and even a clean athlete would risk injury or long term complications to maintain an income considered minimal by U.S. standards.
    When Contract time rolls around you had better have your ducks in a row or you may not get the contract of your dreams or any contract at all.

  9. Ann Gaffigan says:

    I believe that track & field has the potential to be as popular in the US as it has been in the past and as it is in Europe now. Just look at the attendance annually, not just in Olympic years, for the Penn Relays and the Drake Relays. These are domestic meets that bring in more people than the USATF Championships (in non-Olympic years) or the Pre Classic or the New York Grand Prix. I am not the meet director, so I don’t know how they are able to be so successful when other meets struggle, but they are doing things right. I would assume that things like the Pole Vault in the mall at Drake are ways they are able to attract casual fans. At the Kansas Relays, they do a long jump and shot put downtown. Penn has so much history and also attracts the best sprinters from the US and Jamaica. Mt SAC Relays is another great meet. You know what to expect at each of these meets, and you know it will be a great show every year. They also combine quality elite field with quality university fields and high school kids. That connects the generations of the sport, which is important for retention. We need to lose less athletes to other sports!

    If we could have more domestic meets that were as successful as these annual relay meets, it would raise the profile of the athletes and bring more money into the sport at the same time. I think there are several meets that are already at a good starting point that could be raised to this level – the Payton Jordan at Stanford, the Occidental Invitational, Pre Classic, New York Grand Prix, and so forth. Besides the meet itself, the meet directors could work on ways to introduce the elites to the public in that area – through meet and greets, a gala, a fun run, a clinic, etc.

    There is a lot of work to be done, but the potential is there. Track & field is not dead in America.

  10. Hi
    As a specialist i want to ask you about the amount and the terms of the famous athletes contracts with their sponsors as Usain bolt , Cristiano Ronaldo and Maria Sharapova .
    And if the athletics federations in their countries has any thing with these contracts. And what things that the athlete should be avoid when signing the contract with the sponsor.
    Thanks.

  11. All, we have built such a league for T&F but need to get a couple big investors to the table…
    Manny

  12. Another reason why China will soon overtake us in track and field, just as they have in gymnastics, diving and anything else they decide on. Massive government support for all athletes, elite training centers, top quality coaching, nothing is spared. Not saying its right, but it certainly works. And the only way to fight it is to do the same.

  13. Yup, i agree with mark lattimore, get mark cuban or someone to accept a NFL type business model for track but be like the NTL, ‘National Track League’ and even make it limited sprints and distance at first or something… this would explode the sport in a obvious new direction.

  14. PimpThe478 says:

    It’s disconcerting to say the least that track and field athletes earn mere pittance compared to almost every other major sport in the world.Unfortunately T&F has been hit by scandal after scandal over the past 25 years and serious passionate interest seems to have been lost by many. Well because of the lack of demand for track and field save Olympic time sponsorship deals,price awards and appearance fees have never really taken off and the athletes you see before you often earning no more money than the average middle class person.Such a shame because T&F is as someone once said “world anonymous” sport it is practiced by every country but hardly held on the same esteem level as other sports except of course in countries like Jamaica,Ethiopia,Kenya etc.

    The only way to get track and field athletes to enjoy the kinds of compensation that athletes in other sports get is for the public to feel that performances that they see and not artificially produced but legit.Unfortunately this does not seem likely story after story seems to come out about athletes and even elite athletes cheating.

Speak Your Mind

*