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If the Shoe (Contract) Fits: What’s Behind Pro Runner Sponsorship Shakeups

Elite runners make most of their money by signing with shoe and apparel brands. Here’s why so many are changing allegiances this year.

For tuned-in track and field fans, a certain kind of announcement from professional runners has appeared frequently on social media lately: A photo of the athlete donning a new race kit, a fresh pair of spikes or trainers on her feet, and a caption explaining she’s left one brand or team and will now represent a different one.

Every four years a similar pattern emerges among elite runners. Most of them make the bulk of their earnings from exclusive deals with shoe and apparel brands, and usually those contracts follow the traditional Olympic cycle—they come up for negotiation (or termination), even if the pandemic has delayed the Tokyo Games by a year.

Sometimes agreements are renewed and life goes on as normal. Other times an athlete and agent try to renegotiate the payment structure. Maybe the runner has performed beyond expectations and her value has increased. Perhaps her social media following has skyrocketed and her fan base is more attractive. Maybe the brand sees a decline and offers less or decides to end the relationship. Sometimes a rival offers a better deal that can’t be matched. Sometimes an athlete wants a change of training group or coach or location, which can also factor into striking a new deal.

Unlike other professional sports, the negotiations, terms, and salaries of the top-tier track and field athletes are kept mostly confidential. Unless a runner or her agent discloses the details, the allegiances to shoe brands and pro training groups are mostly the subject of speculation and gossip. But often the reasons are as mundane as the career choices we all make when we change jobs: a new boss (coach), different coworkers (training partners), a raise, a relocation, or a shift in lifestyle or family circumstances.

“Athletes are looking for the right shoes, sometimes a training group sponsored by the company making those shoes, with the right coach and training partners,” says Merhawi Keflezighi, who started his career as an agent by representing his brother Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist, 2009 New York City Marathon champion, and winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon. “Are they based at sea level? Do they go to altitude camps throughout the year? You have to think a lot about what combination works best for you.”

Given all those factors on top of financial considerations, it’s no mystery why pro athletes need to shake things up from time to time. To get a better idea of what goes into making these decisions, we asked three runners who signed new deals in 2021 to talk about why they made their moves now, what they hope to get out of their new contracts, and the expectations brands have of them.

Healthy Relationships

What Alexi Pappas needed as an athlete in 2013 is far different than what she seeks in 2021.

Back then, Pappas had just graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Oregon, where she competed for the prestigious track and cross-country teams. Her ambition was to make the 2016 Olympics in the 10,000 meters, representing Greece.

Pappas signed a coveted Nike contract and took a spot with the Oregon Track Club Elite. From the outside, it looked like a setup any rookie pro runner would desire.

“There were certain things I needed then that are much different than I need now,” Pappas says. “Then, I wanted to work with a program and company that would help me take the steps toward an Olympic dream.”

Nike and the OTC buoyed her to the goal: She made it to the Rio Games and placed 17th in the 10,000 meters. But as Pappas details in her new book, Bravey, what came after that shifted the trajectory of her career and her life.

Pappas went into a deep depression after the Games, at the same time she was set to renegotiate her contract with Nike. She was at a vulnerable point in her mental health—and she had invested a solid part of her worth and identity into her relationship with Nike. She signed a new contract for less than she had hoped, instead of investigating offers from other companies.

Ultimately Pappas was released from the contract, but she remained unsponsored as she struggled to find a new training and sponsorship situation, while receiving treatment and working through depression with her psychiatrist. As she regained her health, she also had a clearer idea of what a successful path forward might look like—one that took into account her athletic aspirations, but also allowed her to pursue her writing and film career, too.

RELATED: Five Things We Learned from Alexi Pappas’ Memoir, Bravey

“I focus on what my goals are and what resources and tools I need to get to my goals,” Pappas says. “When I moved away from Oregon, I wanted to grow as an athlete, person, and an artist. So, I sought out partnerships that embraced that.”

She signed an apparel deal with Champion and this year she added a contract with Atreyu, a new running shoe brand based in Austin, Texas. She had worn gear from both companies before approaching either about a partnership.

“I think it’s as mental as it is physical,” Pappas says. “I have to live a life of integrity and feel like what I say about a product or a company is true. I would be wearing Champion and Atreyu even if there was no platform to say it.”

Pappas is now based in Los Angeles, and along with promoting her book, she’s also hoping to qualify for the 2021 Olympics in the marathon. She’ll need to run a 26.2-mile race in 2:29:30 or faster this spring (she’s hopeful she’ll be able to find an event that hasn’t been canceled by the pandemic). Her new coach lives in Greece, and she was able to work with him for the first five months of the pandemic, when she was stuck there due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“It’s been really fun,” Pappas says. “I’m becoming a more well-rounded athlete. He pays really close attention to the details, more than I’ve ever had.”

Growing Up

Aisha Praught Leer, a 2016 Olympic steeplechaser representing Jamaica, also started her post-collegiate running career with Nike and the Oregon Track Club Elite. It was the place she learned the ropes, she says.

“I learned everything that I needed to know, like how do I care for this body? How do I navigate international travel? How do I basically learn the scale of being a pro athlete?” Leer says. “Then I sort of realized that I was getting a bit older and that I really like this job and I wanted to do it for a very, very long time.”

With that realization, she and her husband, Will Leer, decided in 2016 that they needed more balance and stability in their lives than they could find in Eugene. They were bouncing back and forth between altitude stints and traveling for competition. They ended up moving to Boulder, Colorado, to join Emma Coburn (2016 Olympic steeplechase bronze medalist) and her husband/coach Joe Bosshard’s training group, which isn’t tied to a single shoe sponsor. Simultaneously, Leer signed a contract with Under Armour.

“The move allowed us to be more rooted at home and establish ourselves more in a community,” she says. “Emma has wild and amazing success on the track, of course, but I was drawn here because of just how well-rounded she is as a person. It’s a more sustainable choice.”

During her four years with Under Armour, Leer won the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal and made the 2017 world championships final in the steeple, as well as the 2019 world championships final in the 1500 meters.

“Under Armour believed in our mission and my judgement,” Leer says. “They allowed me to find that balance a bit more of caring for myself while achieving the very best for myself.”

But at the beginning of 2021, it was time for another change. Leer announced that she had a new sponsor in Puma, which is re-emerging on the distance running scene. She is pursuing a spot on the Jamaican Olympic team in the 1500 meters, and although financial considerations are top of mind, it was equally important to feel a little pressure, she says.

“I am calling this my ‘Big Girl Contract,’” Leer says. “They’re expecting performance from me and that’s what I wanted to sign up for.”

And although the running world has witnessed the importance of shoe technology most obviously in the marathon, that innovation is migrating to the track, too, so it was important for Leer to know that Puma is making spikes that can compete with other brands.

“I had some time to sort of play with the shoes and make sure that they were a good fit for me,” she says. “It’s become critical that you’re with a brand that is committed to footwear innovation.”

Leer wishes more fans of the sport understood the complexities of contracts, but because of the confidential nature of the way business is done, she knows it’s difficult to keep up with the changes.

“Because there’s so much secrecy, and because track is an individual sport, there are a lot of layers to sponsorship. There is no formula for the times you have to run or the number of followers you have to get on Instagram,” she says. “It would potentially drive more interest if contract negotiations were more public. And it would probably be in the athletes’ interest to know how companies negotiate and which of them value what things.”

Keflezighi agrees and sees a greater opportunity as more training groups and teams develop. Perhaps professional runner salary information might even be more public.

“Maybe teams can make that information available in a legal way so that everybody is transparent about it,” he says. “That would also empower the athletes with more information.”

When It Ain’t Broke

By now most fans know Keira D’Amato’s unique rise to the top of U.S. women marathon runners. After her race in December at the Marathon Project, she is the seventh-fastest on the all-time list (2:22:56).

At 36, D’Amato, who lives in Midlothian, Virginia, burst onto the scene, or so it seemed. Although she competed in college, she took almost a decade off afterward—at first to heal an injury, but then to move on with life. She got married, became a realtor, had two children, and slowly eased her way back into a running routine, only to discover that she still had a lot of talent.

In 2020 she set the 10-mile American record for a women’s-only race in 51:23. She ran a 15:04 at a 5,000-meter time trial and 32:33 for 10,000 meters. D’Amato won the Michigan Pro Half Marathon in 68:57.

All the while, many people wondered why she wasn’t sponsored. And the truth was, she wasn’t in any hurry to commit to a partnership that might ruin the good thing she had going. Often sponsors demand performance benchmarks and a certain amount of racing each year in exchange for bonuses (or if injuries or declines in performances result, reductions in pay can ensue). Her family already had financial security, health insurance, and a home they didn’t want to move away from, not to mention a coach she wanted to stick with. She liked the super-fast Nike shoes she had the liberty to wear, too.

D’Amato wanted to pursue running in her own way, so she only considered partnerships that allowed her to do that, she says. Now that she’s moving to track competition, with the ultimate goal to race at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in June, she tried out a variety of spikes from different brands, but she ultimately ended up signing a deal with Nike, she announced on Tuesday.

“I didn’t want to change what was working,” D’Amato says. “I haven’t been injured and I’ve been progressing well. A contract wasn’t my main goal—seeing how fast I can run is my main goal.”

D’Amato admits, however, that the additional income, travel support, and free gear will be helpful. And she is looking forward to outfitting her son and daughter in the Swoosh, too.

RELATED: Keira D’Amato’s Essential Workout

“I have worked very, very hard as a realtor to support my running hobby,” she says. “And I have a partner who supports the family as well, and that’s important.”

The usual factors that professional runners coming out of the college might consider important were not for D’Amato. She didn’t care what the length of the contract was, for example. Her agent, Ray Flynn, asked her what shoes she wanted to wear and he took it from there.

“I knew I was so comfortable with what I am doing. Why would I change it?” she says. “Nike is sort of thinking outside the box with me and they were willing to take on someone different. I appreciate that.”

It’s true that most of the time athletes don’t have quite the freedom that D’Amato has when they rely so heavily on their sponsorship deals in order to pursue professional running. After considering the financial offers, Keflezighi advises his clients to make sure they are comfortable with the values of the brand and what it stands for, then investigate whether it’s going in the right direction with innovation.

Beyond that? Athletes have to put in the work to remain valuable—not just from a training and racing perspective, but in their efforts to reach fans. Ultimately, they are there to help brands sell shoes, whether they achieve it through medals and podiums or by sharing their unique stories in a way that speaks to an audience.

“If you can balance great performances, great training, and a great engagement on social media, then you have the best of all worlds,” Keflezighi says. “An athlete’s reach can only help them as long as they utilize it in an organic and responsible way. Some excel at that along with amazing performances, and it’s very attractive. There’s value in that for sure.”