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Sports sponsorship and a new wave of competition

Sports sponsorship and a new wave of competition

World-class athletes are now battling with reality TV stars for sports sponsorship, says Ross Murray

Sportsmen and women are facing a new wave of competition for sponsorships and endorsements. I worry that for most Olympic sports, it could make earning a living almost impossible.

Most athletes don’t dream of Olympic glory in order to get rich. They’re not a shallow bunch! It’s deeper than that. It’s a dream they’ve had since being teenagers. Those late nights lying awake, visualising becoming a champion, those gruelling days at the track, pushing through pain barriers they didn’t know existed, all in a bid to become the best in the world.

Despite this honest and very moral quest, they do however still need to pay rent and put food on the table. A 2012 study conducted by ‘Track and Field AA’ found that 50% of professional athletes are living below the poverty line, earning less than £12,000 a year (trackfieldaa.com).

I saw a post from a 1500m Olympic 10th place finisher, Nate Brannen, expressing his disappointment at being dropped from his sponsor Saucony, while top runners who compete in the ‘Beer Mile’ are getting professional contracts.

The ‘Beer Mile’ is an increasingly popular event among the running community, where athletes run one mile on the track and, before each lap starts, drink a 330ml bottle or can of beer. This year a world record was set by Canadian Corey Bellamore in 4:37. Despite it being a bit of fun, this is actually very impressive. He ran close to a four-minute mile with the other 30 seconds made up by ‘downing’ beers. I wonder what Roger Bannister would make of it!

Joking aside, it seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? An elite, world-class athlete is not deemed investable by running-specific sports brands, but guys who are getting drunk and running around the track are? Perhaps it’s not so ludicrous. Perhaps the companies have run the numbers and believe they will get a better return on their investment and more exposure. At the end of the day, it’s business.

After spending time on the running circuit, being around agents and athletes, the talk is that the money is drying up. Superstars like Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis-Hill will always get deals. It’s the other 30 athletes outside of the top 10 who also competed in the event who seem to be struggling. Without the depth, it wouldn’t make for very interesting viewing.

So why is the money drying up? Athletes are now competing with reality TV stars, bloggers, Instagrammers and YouTubers for their sponsorships and endorsements. Even from sports brands. The professional term that companies use for these people, is ‘influencers’.

For example, Binky Felstead, a reality TV star from ‘Made In Chelsea’, has recently been signed by Reebok. This sports shoe company used to sponsor athletes, the GB track and field team and the UK Cross Challenge series, but now they have opted for ‘influencers’. If we’re honest, can you blame them? All you have to do is look at the reach they have to young people in comparison to athletes.

Binky has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, most of whom will be 13 to 30-year-old women which will be the exact target market Reebok want, not to mention she is on the TV for an hour most weeks. Most athletes will be on mainstream TV once or twice a year for the annual indoor and outdoor championship, plus the odd Diamond League on ‘the red button’. The exposure they get from her is far greater than they would from a professional athlete.

“Binky Felstead, a reality TV star from ‘Made In Chelsea’, has recently been signed by Reebok. This sports shoe company used to sponsor athletes, the GB track and field team and the UK Cross Challenge series, but now they have opted for ‘influencers’”

I’m not saying sponsoring influencers over athletes is right or wrong. It’s just business – and companies need to get a return on the money they put in.

As a comparison, Binky has 37 times more reach than one of Britain’s top female athletes, Dina Asher-Smith, who has 30,000 followers. This is no slight on Dina, more so highlighting the marketing power of reality TV stars.

Similarly, Kylie Jenner was reportedly paid $1million for her Puma campaign. With that one campaign Puma could have supported 41 athletes on £20k a year. It’s a lucrative salary when we know that around 50% of professional athletes in the US are living below the poverty line on less than £12,000 per year.

Thirty years ago, ‘influencers’ didn’t exist. So, the competition simply wasn’t there. Companies only had the likes of sportspeople, actors and singers that they could endorse. Not to mention there were only three TV channels in the 1980s and athletics was on BBC1 every week through the summer for hours at a time.

Now the Diamond League has a one hour review on a Sunday afternoon at 1pm. Hardly primetime. Compare that with YouTubers who boast weekly views of 1-3 million on their videos. The point is, you can see another reason why companies opt to sponsor influencers over athletes.

An even bigger block for athletes is the International Olympic Committee’s ‘Rule 40’. In layman’s terms, Rule 40 prevents any athlete’s personal sponsor that isn’t an official Olympic sponsor from promoting their athletes during the Games, and conversely it prohibits the athletes promoting any links to sponsors who are not official Olympic sponsors. This includes videos, photos, logos and phrases which any company, in this case the International Olympics Committee, has registered.

So because Nike isn’t an Olympic sponsor, during the Olympic period they couldn’t wish Ross Murray good luck, tell people to tune in to watch me or even #Rio2016. Likewise, I can’t thank my sponsor for their support over the last four years.

The Olympic Games is the best opportunity a company will ever get exposure via their athletes, only comes around once every four years … and it’s been banned. This massively limits the return companies get on their athletes, once again making it less appealing to sponsor them. Imagine Sony paying top money for prime-time advertising space on television, but then being told they can’t advertise on a Saturday evening at 8pm because the contractors gave it away to somebody else.

It’s sad that athletes (and I’m sure this is the same across other Olympic sports) are being pushed aside by sports brands in favour of celebrities, a lot of whom have no connection to sport. It’s sad that role models are now reality TV stars and not sportspeople. And it’s sad that some companies and brands are fuelling this ideology.

Where is it going to go in the future? Nobody can say for sure, but I believe companies will increasingly sponsor influencers with a story, rather than professional athletes.

There will always be deals available if you’ve won an Olympic medal or if you’re a superstar junior coming through the ranks. In between that, I think it’s only going to get worse and force a lot of very good athletes into early retirement.

This will ruin the depth in athletics and make it less interesting to watch. I fear athletics will be a sport that people only tune into once every four years.

» Ross Murray is a 3:34 1500m runner and London 2012 Olympian

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