Run Gum, an emerging business co-founded by track and field star Nick Symmonds, has filed a lawsuit after being denied the ability to have athletes wearing Run Gum uniforms at the Olympic Trials. When I heard about it, to be honest I was confused. I had no idea there was a rule preventing anyone except “apparel manufacturers” from appearing in the Olympic Trials, and it took me some digging to understand it.
In 2015, Nick took a first step in Run Gum sponsoring athletes, which resulted in several people wearing Run Gum jerseys at the USA Championships. It was a win win for everyone because these athletes didn’t have apparel sponsors, (yes, there are many athletes good enough to race at the World and Olympic Trials who don’t have apparel sponsors, and even people good enough to make the Olympics), and they got some money, and RunGum got exposure to a target demographic.
When I watched this happen last year I was inspired. I had always hoped that one day Picky Bars would have enough money to sponsor athletes, and often daydreamed about how we could do so down the road. I hadn’t thought about using Nick’s model before, and thought it could be worth exploring for 2016. And even before Picky Bars, I often wondered why insurance companies, banks, car companies, and the like didn’t scoop up athletes the way shoe and apparel brands do. T-Mobile and Sky and Astana sponsor cycling teams as the primary logo and they don’t make their money on bicycles or cycling gear, so why don’t track and field athletes and training groups seek sponsorship from non-endemic brands? It never made sense to me. When I asked people this question, people would often say things like “nobody cares about track and field” or “the sport is boring” or go on about the need to improve production value and TV time and all that stuff. I mean, sure, there are improvements to be made, but those aren’t the reasons. After all, plenty of non-endemic brands invest in track and field via IOC, USOC, or USATF sponsorships, so I know they are very interested and willing to spend marketing dollars in track and field.
The real reason non-endemic sponsors don’t invest in track and field athletes the way Oiselle, Brooks, Nike and New Balance do is because of rules set by the USOC and IAAF that block them from entering the market place. The rule Run Gum is suing about applies only to the National Championships in an Olympic Year. On those years, only “approved apparel manufacturers” can occupy the little 30 cm2 allowable logo space on the uniform:
To be approved to use this one tiny logo space an athlete can have on their uniform, you must make the majority of your revenue from the sale of apparel. Which of course RunGum, T-Mobile, Sky, BMW, BP, Visa, Google, Rosetta Stone, or 99% of companies (including those who sponsor USATF, USOC, etc) don’t.
Anyone can physically make a competition kit. But not everyone is allowed to. And if you aren’t allowed to make a competition kit that can be competed in all four years of the Olympic cycle, then you can’t be a primary sponsor of athletes in our sport, because that pesky Olympic Trials will leave your athletes naked every four years. If Picky Bars outbid Brooks and paid someone $40,000 a year to race for Picky Bars, that athlete couldn’t wear our uniform at the Olympic Trials, (or any other meet that falls under IAAF uniform rules from my understanding), which essentially means we would never consider doing that. That means athletes have less companies bidding for them, fewer overall opportunities, and lower salaries due to lack of competition. It’s a pie that can never grow in size. As a business owner and CMO of a non-apparel company, I’m limited to thinking about small scale, creative marketing efforts that make sense for us in the sport of track and field, and those are the kinds of marketing plans that don’t add all that much value for the athletes.
Every brand that isn’t an apparel manufacturer is being kept out of meaningful track and field athlete sponsorship due to anti-competitive rules. The question we should be asking is, why do these rules exist in the first place?
I support Nick and Run Gum in their lawsuit. Even though winning it would result in a rule change that appears small at first glance, it could make a big difference, and set precedent for bigger changes in the future. It’s time to question, and dismantle, the real reasons why “nobody wants to invest money in track and field.” Run Gum’s lawsuit, and changing IAAF Uniform Rules as I proposed with this resolution, would go a long ways towards making the sport more viable for athletes, and more attractive to investors and sponsors.
To Illustrate the point here, this uniform mock up is currently illegal at the Olympic Trials. After hearing about Run Gum’s troubles I wanted to see for myself if Picky Bars would be denied in 2016. A small but significant percentage of our sales in 2015 was apparel, and we’ve been in business five years. I thought there might be a workaround for us that Run Gum may have missed.
Despite adhering to logo size restrictions, as well as limiting to one sponsor as the rules require (also a rule that needs changing, but I digress), my request to even begin seeking approval from the USOC was denied because our “primary source of corporate revenue needs to come from clothing and footwear.” When I followed up on the USOC’s offer to explain the rule to me by calling them, I was told they couldn’t comment at this time due to the pending lawsuit. So I can’t tell you much more than this: these rules are anti-competitive, are not in the best interests of athletes, and I really hope Run Gum wins.
If you are a pro athlete reading this right now, this is why you’re poor despite record sponsorship levels for USATF, the popularity of track and field in the Olympics, etc. We need your support and your voice.
Follow and join the conversation on social #RunGumLawsuit