The life of a pro athlete can look pretty glamorous from the outside, but multi-million dollar contracts and lucrative endorsements are only accessible to the best of the best, according to Nick Symmonds. The two-time Olympian recently shared a video in which he outlines the three ways he was able to make money as a professional runner.
The shoe contract
Nick calls this “low hanging fruit” as it’s the most obvious option, but he notes that it’s “hard to pick” because you really need to be one of the best runners out there to draw the attention of brands like Nike, Adidas and Brooks. “They’re not easy deals to get,” he says, “and even if you do get the deal, it’s not insane money… unless you’re Usain Bolt.”
In terms of contracts, a lot of brands start small, offering free gear to athletes. Nick’s first contract gave him gear and a small travel budget, which enabled him to not need a secondary job as he was “living simply” and focusing on his training.
Those contracts will often include bonuses if you win a title, but there are also reduction clauses, which mean that you get less money if you don’t hit certain milestones, such as being ranked high enough or racing a minimum number of times in a year.
Another drawback to these deals is the non-disclosure agreements which prevent athletes from talking about their money. “There’s a lot of secrecy around these contracts,” says Nick, adding that this is by design: “They don’t want you to know what other people are making.”
Some races such as the US Championships, the World Championships and the Diamond League all pay “fantastically well,” says Nick. For instance, if you win first place in the Diamond League, you stand to take home $10,000, while the world champion of the Cross Country Championships would win $30,000.
“I would typically look for races that have at least $2,000 for placing,” says Nick. “If you’re one of the better athletes then you’re already getting your travel, hotel and food paid for, so a lot of the time when I was racing in the summer I wouldn’t have any expenses.”
“A meet director will pay you just to show up, even if you finish dead last, just so they can use your name in the marketing,” he explains. If Usain Bolt were to appear at a meet, for example, it would cost around six figures. But this only applies to the absolute best. When Nick was ranked first in the US, he still didn’t qualify for an appearance fee.
“It wasn’t until I built up a bigger brand and following that directors wanted me to appear at races,” he says. When he became an Olympian, won a silver medal and ranked in the World Top 10, that began to change. “They want medallists,” he says. “There’s an arms race to see how many big names they can get.”
Nick was able to get between $8,000 and $10,000 to appear at meets, as well as having the opportunity to win the prize money, but he says that such opportunities are “very short-lived” and “it evaporates quickly”; after being invited to a meet where the fee was $10,000, he got injured and wasn’t able to race. Ineligible for the appearance fee and unable to run for the prize money, he started his business RunGum. This is what informs Nick’s best advice to athletes: “Save your money, and have an exit strategy.”
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