When we think of the lifestyle of an elite athlete, we think of them living in fancy homes, driving luxury vehicles, hanging out with other social elites and having the ability to ensure the financial stability of their immediate family. In the realm of track and field this reality is far from the case. Even for the top echelon of the elite track and field athletes in the United States, many of them better have a career to jump to once father time finally catches up.
Most elite athletes in the sport will earn less than $15,000 in income and benefits from the USATF—an organization that is to the sport of track and field as the NFL, NBA and MLB are to their respective sports. Thus, if an athlete puts in 20 hours a week (likely the minimum amount of hours needed to train to compete at an elite level) for 44 weeks out of the year, and made $15,000 dollars, that athlete would have worked for an effective rate of $17.05 an hour. The picture should be crystal clear. These elite athletes are no NBA All-Stars.
Some readers are putting on their free market hats and are thinking that these athletes’ earnings are clearly indicative of what the market could bare. The USATF couldn’t have that much money to offer track and field athletes anyhow. Heck, many can’t name one time they’ve actually attended a track meet or even been invited to attend a track meet for that matter. And these readers are partially correct. USATF doesn’t have the ability to afford every professionally competitive track and field athlete in the US a multi-million dollar salary. Nor do I argue that is what USATF should do. What it can do is offer competitive professional athletes a salary that can allow him or her to not have to work a second job.
USATF is essentially that person in your office that shocked you when you learned from your co-worker that she was extremely wealthy. She never flaunted her money, she worked what most people consider a miserable job, and she never mentions her elite connections and upbringing. USATF not only brings in millions of dollars of yearly revenue it is a member of an organization (United States Olympic Committee) that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly revenue. Most fans, coaches and track and field athletes are unaware of the money brought in by USATF. This is due largely because people think of track and field as an amateur sport. Like the NCAA, USATF has profited greatly off the backs of its athletes and have done so largely by flying under the radar.
Trackandfieldnews.com reported in April of 2014, that the USATF and Nike had entered into a 23-year deal extension where Nike will remain an official sponsor of USATF. The deal amounted to $20 million dollars a year. Furthermore, USATF is sponsored by Hershey, BMW, Visa, Chobani, Rosetta Stone and University of Phoenix. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is currently in the a six-year contract in which it entered into a $4.38 billion dollar contract with NBC to broadcast both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games from 2014 through 2020. It is no doubt that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has tremendous clout in determining how a considerable chunk of that money is spent. NBC’s major market is selling add time to US companies that are advertising to US residents. Therefore, NBC likely received some assurances from the USOC that it could provide a product worth watching prior to signing the deal. Most importantly though, according to USOC’s tax documents reporting on the 2013 financial year, USOC had over $199 million dollars in net assets.
So why are elite track athletes only making $17 dollars an hour? It is not because the organization pays everyone on a discount basis. In 2013, USATF’s General Counsel earned over $189,000, the Chief Communications Officer earned over $185,000, the Chief of Sport Performance earned over $183,000, the Chief Operating Officer earned over $207,000 and the Chief Executive Officer earned over $677,000. It is not because there is no money to be dispersed. At the end of 2013, USATF had over $4.3 million at the end of the financial year.
The reason why elite track athletes are not making what they are worth is because they have failed to unite in a meaningful way. Their “fractionalism” has allowed a sport where corporations and organizations can make millions and even billions of dollars because the resource of the product is undervalued. There is no way Nike should have an exclusive shoe and apparel deal with USATF for $20 million a year. In the next segment, I will speak on the structure of USATF and the environment it created for its’ athletes.