Show me your value & I’ll show you the money

Athletes can be like precocious children. When things don’t go their way, they love to complain. They complain about the weather, race conditions, lane assignments, and lousy hospitality and hotel accommodations. They complain about USATF for its tepid support of  intermediate professional athletes (justified) and NIKE  for dominating the business of sport and sucking the air out of the room when it comes to economic competition (often justified). But they most often complain about how little money they make at their profession despite all of their hard work and success. As an agent, I am often asked by my athletes, usually politely, “Why can’t you get me an invite/appearance fee for a particular race or get me more sponsorships?”  My answer is almost always the same: “What can you bring to the table that would make a race director or a sponsor want you? What differentiates you from all the other great athletes out there who want the same thing? In short, what is your value to them?” True, very few people in the country may throw as far as you do, jump as high as you do, or run as fast as you do, but unless you are one of the best in the world in your event, your success alone is not going to get you a particular race invite, score you a sponsorship, or get you anything other than prize money.

Earlier in my career, one of my most accomplished athletes asked me to see if I could get him an invitation to compete in one of the most prestigious races in the world. Given the multiple successes he had in his career, the athlete, in my opinion, deserved an invite. When I approached the elite runner coordinator who was responsible for putting together the elite field for that particular race, he commended my athlete on his great performances and then said, “What value does your athlete have to us? What can he give us that all the other great athletes who want invites can’t, most of whom are faster than your guy anyway?” It quickly became clear to me that just being fast, a “great guy” and being of “sound character” who everyone “liked and admired” wasn’t going to win the day. Lesson learned.

Three-time Olympian and former triple jump world record holder Willie Banks learned the lesson the hard way. In 1981, after a national record-setting US Championship, Banks traveled to Europe to capitalize on his success. He assumed he would travel throughout Europe and make considerable money going meet to meet throughout the continent. He was shocked when he discovered that an ex-London cop who managed several of the important meets said that there would be no triple jumps in Europe that year. Indignant, Banks accosted the ex-cop and demanded to know why there were no triple jumps. According to Banks, the ex-cop looked him in the eye and said, “I will not have the triple jump because the triple jump doesn’t put butts in the seats! Why should I bring you in and pay you when no one is coming to the meet to watch you?” Lesson learned. Banks’ rendition of the incident and the effect it had on his career can be found in a piece entitled Track & Field Is A Business First  Even though written before the advent of the social media boom, it’s an important and eye-opening read for all athletes and agents.

As a highly successful and respected athlete who made a comfortable living in sport, Banks is often asked the secret to getting sponsorships and making enough money to train. His answer is simple. “Stop thinking of this as a welfare sport and think of yourself as an entertainer.” Because “[t]he sport is drowning in vanilla,” he encourages athletes to take responsibility for themselves and to be different and interesting. In short, an athlete needs to develop a personality or hook that differentiates him or her  from other great athletes and excites people, both junkies and non-junkies alike, about the athlete, the sponsor, and track and field. Instead of complaining about the way things are, the athlete needs to develop  a brand and personality that brings something of value to the sport which will put butts in the seats and promote the potential sponsor’s product. Who knows? You might get in that race, find a sponsor, and even make a living at this.

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