Sooner or later most track and field athletes accept the fact that the sport will not make them famous or rich. At most, a handful of track geeks will recognize your name when making their predictions for the Olympics or World Championships. And while we must eventually accept this, it is hard. We watch professional athletes on the TV making millions and feel that we should also be rewarded for having dedicated our lives to maximizing our physical gifts.
The truth of the matter is that no one is sitting around waiting to hand money to athletes for their talents. What brings this topic to mind is a discussion I had with elite discus thrower Will Conwell after the Evergreen Athletic Fund‘s annual meeting on Tuesday. We were both a little exhausted from hearing athletes complain about lack of support and then do nothing about it. It’s not that I think athletes are undeserving of support from the USATF and others, but athletes have been calling for more support for the last century and little has changed. Yelling loader won’t help. For better or worse, athletes have to take some initiative to find that support. I learned this lesson from Harold Connolly. After getting little support from USATF for the youth hammer throw, he started to raise his own money and create his own path where he found much more success.
There are generally two ways to get financial support: (1) help make someone a profit; or (2) appeal to someone’s heart. The latter is the most straight forward. There are millions of people across America that want to help athletes succeed. The key is connecting these people with the athlete. Sometimes it is a friend, sometimes it is a stranger. Either way, you need to approach the person and make it as easy as possible for them to support athletics. The Evergreen Athletic Fund has found this process involves a lot of effort, but it works better than you think. After we received tax-exempt status from the IRS, Will, myself, and others approached hundreds of people with organized presentations, many of which now donate via automatic monthly “subscriptions” that makes their continued support effortless. Last year we were pennies away from raising $30,000 which went to supporting local elite throwers. This isn’t an earth shattering number, but it shows that a little effort can result in a reward for cash-strapped athletes without many credentials (yet). My old training partners in Kamloops have also worked hard to raise support from the community and been able to attract the world’s best coach and build a great facility and support network. But the money will not show up on your doorstep. First you have to have the courage and initiative to ask.
The second path is a bit more difficult. If you want a company to sponsor you, the chances are that you will have to show them it will help their bottom line. To put it in plain language: Nike isn’t our benefactor, it’s a business. You aren’t an athlete, you’re an investment. And if you are not a good investment, companies will not invest in you. Selling yourself as a good investment is more than putting a little polish on your résumé…it means creating your résumé. The Athletics Weekly writer Jon Mulkeen published a great editorial last week about how to get the most out of being a professional athlete. The first step is expanding your image: talk to the press, write a blog, create a gimmick, or just stick out from the crowd. David Oliver was a good example of this last season (listen to how this Swiss reporter reads his blog). I see too many athletes that just want to blend in, and that will not help find sponsors. Sponsors want to find someone that will help them gain exposure and sell their products or enhance their image. If you can’t make yourself stand out, you likely won’t be able to help the sponsor stand out either. American athletes may find this particularly hard since this isn’t a job they’ve ever had to do. They had coaches begging them to go to their school and then media relations teams that helped publicize their efforts. But after graduating, they must do this on their own for once and it can be a challenge.
This second path is also a more long-term path. If we want sponsors to be interested in the sport, we have to raise the sport’s profile. And when I talk about sponsors, I don’t just mean the shoe companies.Take a look at Roger Federer’s ten major sponsors:
- Credit Suisse (financial services)
- Gillette (personal care)
- Jura (home appliances)
- Lindt (chocolate)
- Mercedes-Benz (automobiles)
- Nationale Suisse (insurance)
- NetJets (airplane rentals)
- Nike (sportswear)
- Rolex (watches)
- Wilson (sports equipment)
Only two sponsors are in the sports industry. The same is the case for the top Diamond League meetings. The real money is outside of the sports industry. You start to cast a wider net when you speak about all the world’s major companies instead of all the world’s major athletic companies. But to appeal to these companies you have to start to appeal to the general public. Once again, that means making ourselves stand out.
Luckily, the individual and collective interests are aligned in this mission. The more exposure you gain, the more exposure the sport gains, and vice versa. My main goal with this site, and all of the other sites I run for the Evergreen Athletic Fund, is to increase the sport’s image. Only good things can happen when more people read about the hammer throw, more people compete about the hammer throw, and more people know what the event is.
My goal isn’t to be a professional hammer thrower. I love my job and like the balance of having another venture outside of throwing. But I can nevertheless say that this approach has helped me. I know several other throwers that are much better than me, but who have received no support in their careers. I’ve been able to attract some sponsors and generate great support from various sources and I think part of that is due in part to this site and the other activities I do to help the sport. While my results don’t stand out, my name sometimes does. That helps a lot. If some of the world’s best entered the public conversation more often, they wouldn’t have to worry as much about the USATF’s poor support network or how bad the IAAF’s Hammer Challenge is. We still need to push for their support, but creating our own networks will ensure we can live in spite of their continuous focus on other events. And when we do complain about support, people might begin to listen since we will have a crowd behind us.