Representing a nation on television and a racing team on Instagram

At the world athletics championships, long-distance runners compete on behalf of their country. What’s less visible to the average fan is that most are also competing for their shoe company’s sponsors, who largely provide the funding that makes athletics 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 racing teams.

Think of them as content houses for professional racers, with fewer parties and more naps.

“There’s a fine line between overdoing it, creating a personality and persona that can wear you down and not leading to quality performance on the track,” said Ollie Hoare, an Australian middle-distance runner who competes for On Athletics Club. media. “But being able to be yourself, appreciate who you are and compete in a sport like this is a privilege.”

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

On Athletics Club was launched in 2020 by On, an athletic apparel company in Switzerland. Have you ever heard of On? Well, that’s part of the whole point of sponsoring a professional running club.

“It’s not a secret club that trains behind secret walls,” said Flavio Calligaris-Maibach, head of athlete strategy at On. “We see it as a driver to drive the culture of running with consumers – in a dialogue with our consumers.”

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

Josh Rowe, who has worked in marketing for Nike and New Balance and is now involved in youth athletics, called this sponsorship model a shotgun approach. Companies sought to sponsor enough runners in the hopes that a few would become stars at the Olympics or other high profile events while wearing their shoes.

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

On co-chief executive Marc Maurer said the company launched On Athletics Club as part of a sustained push to expand in North America. Although the company sponsors a number of runners and other athletes around the world, Maurer said a cohesive and friendly team of runners in Boulder is the best way to introduce On to potential consumers.

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

It’s a welcome change for runners who left the highly regulated college athletics structure to fend for themselves as professional athletes in their early 20s. Now, some teams provide coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, and sometimes even accommodation, allowing runners to focus primarily on racing. Shoe companies then have a cohesive group of elite athletes test new products, provide feedback, and show their personality on behalf of a brand.

“Athletes in general are content machines,” said Jesse Williams, a former chief marketing officer at Brooks who now runs Sound Running, an athletics events company.

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

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

Parsons, who will be the first Tinman Elite runner to compete for a championship on Sunday when he races the 5,000 meters, describes himself and most of his team members as underdogs. “I’m a second-team All-American by the skin of my teeth who almost gave up more times than I can count,” he said. “And now I’m competing for a world championship.”

Aggressively marketing its team on social media and designing its own merchandise, Tinman Elite has an outsized sales presence that belies its modest operating results. “We share so much on social media and all the platforms that are presented to us,” Parsons said. “I think people watch us run and watch Tinman run and see how much fun we’re having.”

Professional racing groups also reduce the importance of all-or-nothing races for athletes. They don’t need a top performance at an international event for riders or their sponsors to stand out; 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 a business, how do I translate my brand, how do I translate these athletes, win or lose?”

Most of the On Athletics Club riders have had a solid season so far, and a few were expected to perform particularly well at this week’s World Championships. But that didn’t happen. “We had a kind of tough encounter,” said Dathan Ritzenhein, the team’s coach and a veteran of professional racing groups himself. He said it was one of the first encounters that had been a disappointment.

In the past, a poor performance at the world championships could have been fatal. Contracts could be terminated and riders could question their future in the sport. But the On Athletics Club has a long-term perspective, in which reductions – automatic financial penalties if certain thresholds are not met – are absent from contracts, and many athletes have been signed more in view of the Paris Olympics in 2024. and Los Angeles. Olympics in 2028 than the world championships in 2022.

In fact, the 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 On Athletics Club, at least compared to some of her more outgoing teammates. She admitted to sometimes being uncomfortable with social media and fans following her daily activities. But while her main focus was on racing and competing for medals, she said, fans caring about her meant showing another side of her personality.

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

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James T. Quintero