Representing a Nation on TV and Team Streaming on Instagram

At the World Track and Field Championships, distance runners compete on behalf of their countries. What’s less obvious to the casual fan is that most of them are also vying for sponsors for their own shoe companies, which largely provide the funding that makes track and field a viable career. Even less obvious to the average fan — especially if you’re not on Instagram — an increasing number of them are competing on behalf of professional running teams.

Consider them content homes for professional runners, with less partying and more naps.

“There is a fine line between overdoing it, creating personality and character that can drain you and not perform well on the track,” Olly Hoare, an Australian middle-distance sprinter who competes for the Aon Athletics Club, told social media. “But being able to be yourself, enjoy who you are and compete in a sport like this is a privilege.”

A decade or two ago, a lot of track and field fans probably wouldn’t have seen as many runners as Hur between shows at the Olympics and the World Championships, which are being held in Eugene, Oregon, this year. But fans today can catch up with Hor and two fellow On Athletics Club, Boulder, Colorado residents, on his weekly “Coffee Club” podcast, and get an insight into his training (and his incredibly cute dog, Angus) on Instagram.

On Athletics Club was started in 2020 by On, an athletics apparel company in Switzerland. Haven’t you heard of On? Well, that’s part of the point of sponsoring a professional running club.

“It’s not a secret club that trains behind secret walls,” said Flavio Calligaris-Maibach, Head of Athletes Strategy at On. “We see it as an engine to drive the culture of running with consumers – in dialogue with our customers.”

The team model is not entirely new to tracking and fielding. In the United States, professional running groups date back to at least the 1970s, when Nike created the Athletics West. But, historically, most top runners have trained alone or in loose groups. The shoe companies paid them their salaries but were left on their own to hire their own trainers and decide their training.

Josh Rowe, who has worked in marketing for both Nike and New Balance and is now involved in youth track and field, referred to this sponsorship model as the gun approach. Companies are looking to sponsor enough runners in the hope that a few of them will become superstars at the Olympics or other high-profile events, all while wearing their shoes.

But social media changed everything, and content tailored to Instagram quickly accelerated the transition to a new sponsorship model.

On Co-CEO, Mark Maurer, said the company has set up the On Athletics Club as part of an ongoing drive to expand into North America. Although the company sponsors a number of other runners and athletes around the world, Maurer said a tight-knit and elegant team of runners in Boulder is the best way to introduce On to potential consumers.

Join a crowded market. While each arrangement is a little different financially and contractually, many of America’s best distance runners now congregate on a few competitive teams. Nike is the king of the pack, sponsoring three professional distance groups in Oregon, but New Balance, Hoka, Brooks, Puma and Adidas, among others, have their own teams.

It’s a welcome change for runners who left the rigorous college track and field structure to fend for themselves as professional athletes in their early twenties. Some teams now provide coaches, physical therapists, dietitians and sometimes housing, allowing runners to focus mostly on running. Then, shoe companies get a consistent group of elite athletes to test new products, provide feedback, and bring out their personalities on behalf of the brand.

“Athletes in general are content machines,” said Jesse Williams, a former marketing director at Brooks who now leads Sound Running, a company for track and field events.

And the fans are watching it. Williams is now looking to set up a cross-country event in Austin, Texas, in the winter, in hopes of catering to a fan base that has become more interested in teams than individuals. “You couldn’t have done that 10 years ago,” Williams said. “But you can now.”

Few understand the power of social media in running like Sam Parsons, who competes for the Tinman Elite, which is sponsored by Adidas. While he and some team members receive contracts that include salaries from Adidas, the other members only receive equipment like shoes and have to find funding elsewhere.

Parsons, who will be the first Tienman Elite sprinter to compete for the championship on Sunday when he runs the 5,000m, describes himself and most of his team members as sloppy. “I’m an all-American second-team of the skin of my teeth who have given up almost more times than I can count,” he said. “And now I’m competing for the world championship.”

By marketing its team aggressively on social media and designing its own merchandise, Tinman Elite has a huge commercial presence that belies its modest results. “We share a lot on social media and all the platforms that are offered to us,” Parsons said. “I think people watch us race and watch the Tienman race and see how much fun we have.”

Professional running groups also underestimate the importance of all-or-nothing races for athletes. They do not need to perform high in an international event for runners or their sponsors; Instead, they can find regular visibility on social media. “It’s not about how these athletes perform in a particular race, but for a company, how do I translate my brand, how do I translate these athletes, win or lose?” Roe said.

Most of the runners in the athletics club have had a solid season so far, and a few were expected to do particularly well at the world championships this week. But that did not happen. “We had a rather tough encounter,” said Dathan Ritzenhain, team coach and veteran of the Pro management groups. He said it was one of the first encounters that was a disappointment.

In the past, a poor performance in a world championship could have been fatal. Contracts can be terminated, and runners can be left to wonder about their future in the sport. But the On Athletics Club has a long-term view, with cuts — automatic financial penalties if certain thresholds are not met — absent from contracts, and many more athletes signed with a focus on the Paris Olympics in 2024 and Los Angeles. The 2028 Olympics from the 2022 World Championships.

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

Alicia Monson, who runs the 10,000m, is one of the quietest members of the On Athletics Club, at least compared to some of her more open-minded teammates. She sometimes admitted to being uncomfortable with social media and fans who follow her daily activities. But she said that while she mostly focused on running and competing for medals, the interest in her fans meant showing a different side of her personality.

“For most of us, running isn’t our whole life,” Munson said. “We have different things that make us interesting. The best thing we can do in marketing is show what we do and show our personality through it.”

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