Before I begin, I have to put a disclaimer on my history lesson. Most of my knowledge about this particular subject has been piecemealed together from a dozen or so conversations with older athletes, agents, and shoe reps over the past 15 years. There are people that will know a more accurate account, because they lived through it. I can say that my understanding and knowledge improves significantly from the late 90’s on.
For those relatively new to the sport you may think the recent discussions of sponsorships, logo restrictions and overall professionalization of the sport are new. In fact, they have been around for quite a while. A brief, and likely inaccurate, history of “professional track and field” takes us back to origin of professional road running in this country. It’s my understanding that the road running community found unique ways to compensate elite athletes as early as the late 70’s and early 80’s. Perhaps guys like Alberto Salazar and Drew Mearns could fill in the blanks here.
Anyway, real advancement for professional track and field took place with the repeal of the amateur sports act. This action allowed Olympic athletes to officially receive financial compensation for competitions without jeopardizing their Olympic status. As a result, organizations like the IAAF and USATF rushed to make regulations to maintain the “integrity” of the sport. These regulations are still in effect now, though I believe they may have been updated once or twice during the 90s.
If you go back to footage of elite athletes through early 90s, you’ll see names on their uniforms like Mazda, Toyota, Tyson, Footlocker, and Visa. I remember the big build up leading up to the 1992 Olympic Games around Dan O’brien and Dave Johnson. It was arguably the most successful sports marketing campaign ever for Reebok (despite the fact that Dan no-heighted in the pole vault during the trials and didn’t make the team). I digress.
Anyway, it seems that all the sponsors and the varying sizes of logos were getting out of control. More likely, the federations were frustrated with potential sponsor companies saw equal or greater value in the athletes. Logo rules changed. Sizes and number of logos were standardized and the era of increased restrictions on sponsorship began.
This period, also, coincided with the maturation of the sports marketing profession. Though contract values were largely determined by…well, a thinly supported justifications. Seriously, sports marketing departments fought viciously with marketing departments over budgets. Ironically, traditional marketing departments had similar fights in previous decades with their respective finance and operations departments over budgets. As a witness of this period, I can say it often looked like the sports marketing groups in charge of athletes were more concerned about the short-term buzz over the size of a particular contract. Maybe their thought was the larger the contract the more people will talk about their company? I don’t know, but it seemed to work. As the sports marketing and apparel behemoths as well as the athletes supporting their brand became household names.
From all reports it was a great time to be an athlete. Sponsors hadn’t standardized contracts for athletes, hadn’t figured out how much money they’d spend on a sport, or which sport they would focus on. While it was important to perform, many athletes I’ve spoken with stated something like:
“It was the wild west. If a sponsor liked you and your timing was good, you’d get a ridiculous contract. There was no such thing as an exclusive contract. You could have sponsor for sunglasses, shoes, socks, head bands, and so on.
On the other hand, the system could work against you too.
This concludes Part 1. Part 2 – “The Era of Exclusivity” is coming soon.