Representing the nation on TV and the running team on Instagram

At the World Championships in Athletics, distance runners compete on behalf of their countries. What’s less obvious to the average fan is that most are also competing for their shoe company sponsors, who largely provide the funding that makes sports a viable career. Even less noticeable to the average fan—especially if you’re not on Instagram—is that a growing number of them are competing on behalf of professional running teams.

Think of them as content homes for professional runners, with less partying and more sleeping.

“There’s a very fine line between overdoing it and creating a persona and a character that can inhibit and not lead to quality performance on the track,” said Ollie Hoare, an Australian runner who competes for On Athletics Club, on social media. media. “But being yourself, enjoying who you are and competing in a sport like this is a privilege.”

A decade or two ago, even a devoted track and field fan might not have seen a runner like Hoare between the Olympics and the world championships, which are being held in Eugene, Ore., this year. But today, fans can catch up with Hoare and his two teammates at On Athletics Club, based in Boulder, Colo., on their weekly podcast “Coffee Club” and get updates on his training (and his incredibly cute dog, Angus) on Instagram.

On Athletics Club was launched in 2020 by Swiss athletics apparel manufacturer On. Never heard of On? Well, it’s part of a professional running club sponsorship.

“This is not a secret club training behind secret walls,” said Flavio Caligari-Maybach, On’s head of athlete strategy. “We see it as an engine to strengthen the culture of working with customers – in dialogue with our customers.”

The team model is not at all new in training. In the United States, professional running groups date back to at least the 1970s, when Nike created the West Track and Field Team. But, historically, most top runners trained alone or in loosely knit groups. They were paid by shoe companies, but otherwise left alone to hire their own trainers and determine their own training.

Josh Rowe, who worked in marketing at both Nike and New Balance and is now involved in the youth trend, called this sponsorship model a shotgun approach. Companies tried to sponsor enough runners in the hope that a few would become major stars at the Olympics or some other high-profile event, all while wearing the shoes.

But social media changed everything, and content created specifically for Instagram accelerated the migration to a new sponsorship model.

On CEO Mark Maurer said the company launched the On Athletics Club as part of a sustained push to expand in North America. While the company sponsors countless runners and other athletes around the world, Maurer said the tight-knit and personal team of runners in Boulder was the best way to introduce On to potential customers.

They joined a crowded market. Although each arrangement differs slightly financially and contractually, many of America’s best distance runners are now grouped together on several competitive teams. Nike is the king of the pack, sponsoring three professional distance teams in Oregon, but New Balance, Hoka, Brooks, Puma and Adidas, among others, all have their own teams.

It’s a welcome addition to runners who have left the tight and field structure of college to strike out on their own as professional athletes in their early 20s. Some teams now provide coaches, physical therapists, nutritionists, and sometimes even housing, allowing runners to focus primarily on running. Shoe companies then recruit a consistent group of elite athletes to test new products, provide feedback, and express their personalities under the brand name.

“Athletes in general are content machines,” said Jesse Williams, a former Brooks marketing manager who now heads Sound Running, an athletic events company.

And the fans follow. Williams is now looking to create a team-based event this winter in Austin, Texas, hoping to cater to a fan base that is more interested in teams than individuals. “You couldn’t do that 10 years ago,” Williams said. “But now you can.”

Few understand the power of social media in running like Sam Parsons, who competes in Tinman Elite, sponsored by Adidas. While he and some members of the team receive contracts that include a salary from Adidas, other members only receive shoes and must find funding elsewhere.

Parsons, who will be the first Tinman Elite runner to compete for a championship on Sunday when he runs the 5,000 meters, describes himself and most of his teammates as being overlooked. “I’m a second-team All-American by the skin of my teeth that I’ve almost given up more times than I can count,” he said. “Now I’m fighting for the World Cup.”

With its team’s aggressive social media marketing and its own merchandise designs, Tinman Elite has a huge commercial presence that belies its modest results. “We share a lot on social media and every platform that’s presented to us,” Parsons said. “I think people watch us race, watch the Tinman race and see how much fun we have.”

Professional running groups also downplay the importance of all-or-nothing racing for athletes. They don’t need a top performance at an international event for runners or their sponsors to break through; Instead, they can find regular visibility on social media. “It’s less about how these athletes perform in a given race,” Rowe said, “but for the company, how do I translate my brand, how do I translate these athletes, win or lose?”

Most of the track and field club’s runners have had strong seasons so far and a few have looked particularly good at this week’s world championships. But it didn’t happen. “We had kind of a rough meet,” said Dathan Ritzenhein, the team’s coach and a veteran of professional running groups himself. According to him, this was one of the first meetings that were unsuccessful.

In the past, a bad performance at the World Cup could be fatal. Contracts can be terminated, leaving runners questioning their future in the sport. But On Athletics Club has a long-term perspective in which reductions – automatic financial penalties if certain thresholds are met – are absent from contracts and many athletes have signed up more towards the 2024 Paris Olympics and Los Angeles. Olympics in 2028 rather than the World Cup in 2022.

In fact, On Athletics Club has been so successful that On is replicating the model in Europe and elsewhere. The long-term goal is for On athletes to win the third most medals at the 2028 Olympics.

Alicia Monson, who runs the 10,000 meters, is one of the quieter members of the athletics club, at least compared to some of her more extroverted teammates. She admitted that she is sometimes uncomfortable with social media and fans following her daily activities. But while she was mostly focused on running and fighting for medals, she said the fans taking an interest in her meant showing a different side of her personality.

“For most of us, running is not our whole life,” Monson said. “We have different things that interest us. The best thing we can do in marketing is to show what we do and show our personality. “

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