Outkicked: How Much Should Pro Runners Be Paid?

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If you talk to the athletes themselves, the answer is very often “more.”

Earlier this week, thinking about Oiselle’s two-footed entry into the track and field sponsorship market, I came across a brief discussion about wages by Will Wilkinson. How much should workers be paid, and how do we decide? At the risk of tarting up a post about running with a discussion about labor from The Economist, here’s the part of Wilkinson’s post that caught my attention:

“People on the left are much more likely to see effort, time, the inherent human dignity of work… In contrast, people on the right are more likely to see the operation of supply and demand in competitive labour markets not only as the primary measure of the economic value of labour, but also as the primary measure of merit, or moral desert. The market wage just is the fair wage. It doesn’t matter if the work is hard, or time-consuming, or socially necessary. If the market offers a pittance, then the work’s objectively worth a pittance.”

MORE OUTKICKED: What’s the deal?

How much should track and field athletes be paid? If you talk to track and field athletes, the answer is very often “more.” According to a survey conducted at this summer’s national championships by Andrew Begley, the financial situation for many is dismal. A small number of runners make more than $80,000 per year, but the rest make much less: only half of distance runners and sprinters say they have shoe company sponsorships, and a significant proportion of those athletes report earning less than $20,000 per year. Appearance fees and prize money don’t amount to much, and what little there is goes to the best athletes, who are well compensated to begin with.

I have to admit that I’ve often been guilty of thinking about wages in the sport in terms of the market. Distance running, my main interest, is after all a relatively meritocratic activity: if you’ve got some talent and you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you’re lacking a bit in either, like most of us, you won’t be, and what’s the problem with that?

But the key difference between track and field and the greater economy is that track and field doesn’t have a competitive labor market. By and large, it is dominated by a single company based in Oregon, one that sets wages and funds more than half of the operating expenses of the sport’s governing body. Last week, USA Track & Field spokeswoman Jill Geer discussed that relationship with surprising candor. “The shoe companies put the most money into the sport globally,” she said. “If they feel their interests aren’t being protected and take their money out of the sport, that doesn’t help.” Geer was really only speaking about one shoe company, and of course it’s silly logic. If there is value in sponsoring runners and events in track and field, it won’t suddenly disappear if USATF decides to represent the interests of track athletes, for example by fighting for looser logo restrictions, or enforcing rules less capriciously, or working to ensure more professional announcing. The sport would grow bigger, and the value of those sponsorships would increase. The “interests” Geer speaks of are little more than the continued artificial suppression of wages.

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It may be inevitable that 12:55 5K runners will always make a good living, and 14:00 runners will always be scraping by, but in a friendlier business environment — or maybe one with a strong athlete’s union — there would be plenty of room for 13:30 men and 15:45 women. Oiselle, Sally Bergeson told me this week, isn’t actually paying all of the 24 women who are part of her haute volee team: some are only getting gear, access to physical therapy, and nutritional advice. But that doesn’t need to be the case. “If we were able to use racing for a bigger platform to tell the brand’s story, that would translate to more revenue,” she said, “which translates into an ability to pay those runners more.” Last summer, Bergeson went through a ridiculous run-around in order to get a uniform approved for use at the Olympic trials. For what?

In other words, I don’t know how much money runners should make, and I’m not even sure I care to know. But I am certain that they can make more. That should be uncontroversial, and it’s a shame that it’s not.

About The Author:

Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at@PeterVigneron.

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