Nike is not in the altruism business.
It is in the product selling business.
So the sporting goods giant’s decision to extend its partnership with USA Track & Field until the end of time – actually 2040 – may not solve issues for hugely successful but financially strapped track athletes like Lashinda Demus, an intermediate hurdles world champion and Olympic silver medalist.
Demus spoke for many of her sporting compatriots in 2011 when she said, “We know we’re competing in a dying sport. People are making $15,000 a year and calling themselves a professional athlete.”
Things haven’t gotten any better since.
Except on Nike’s bottom line.
According to sources, the value of the Nike-USATF extension deal announced Wednesday, which is to begin in 2017 and run a nearly incomprehensible 23 years, is about $20 million a year. That would be double the $10 million Sports Business Journal reported the current Nike-USATF deal is worth.
Don’t count on the bulk of the extra money going to relatively needy elite athletes, a group in the United States that includes everyone but a few distance runners and the likes of Olympic champions Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards, who get most of their income in personal deals with companies like Nike.
All USATF can say now about its plans for the increased Nike revenue is it will go for a variety of established and new programs.
“That could include programs for elite, masters and youth,” USATF chief public affairs officer Jill Geer said. “Because this does not begin until 2017, we have time to make plans in a collaborative effort.”
The recently formed Track and Field Athletes Association, closest thing to a collective interest group for the sport’s athletes, undoubtedly will want to play a significant role in that collaboration.
Nike clearly can play big foot whenever it wants – and not just on track and field, since it is the 800-pound gorilla of global sports. Needless to say, it can get a much bigger return from sales to recreational road racers and masters track athletes than it can from shotputters and hurdlers.
Striking a balance – or at least the appearance of one – will be critical.
For instance: will Nike go all-in on a possible bid by the sport’s spiritual home, Eugene. Ore, for the 2019 outdoor world championships, down the road from Nike’s headquarters, even though rival Adidas is the event’s primary global sponsor?
Having an outdoor worlds in the United States for the first time would be a boost for a sport becoming insignificant as a spectator attraction in this country. And Eugene won’t have a chance (it may not have one anyway) without significant investment by Nike, whose chairman, Phil Knight, is famous for donating hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, notably its football program.
Nike already is perceived as having been the heavy when Alberto Salazar, coach of the most prominent training group it sponsors, initially got his way in an absurd disqualification by USATF officials at this winter’s indoor nationals in Albuquerque. The DQ, later reversed, would have benefitted two of Salazar’s athletes.
USATF’s total revenue in 2012, the most recent year for which its tax forms have been made public, was reported as $21,853,470. (That was an Olympic year, when revenue always is higher.)
At that point, Nike represented nearly half the revenue; after 2017, that percentage could be more than two-thirds. Common sense will tell you such a financial stake gives Nike a more privileged position.
Whether USATF rolls over if Nike chooses to abuse that privilege will determine just how much of its soul the organization is willing to sell for new soles.
This article was republished with permission from Karl-Heinz Huba, the editor and publisher of The Sport Intern.