It is common knowledge that ultra-running is a burgeoning sport, and with the explosion in participation there has been an influx of sponsorship money and sponsorship opportunities. Not only are some of the top runners able to scrape together a living from the sport, but there is a broader sponsorship net, such that one no longer has to be in the top echelon to get financial and product support.
So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that no less than five times in the past few weeks have I heard something that went like this: “I am pretty good at ultra-running and have some awesome results. How do I get a sponsor?” Ok, nobody actually said it like that, and, in fact, in this humble crowd, three of these incidents were a friend or a fan asking why some other awesome athlete didn’t have a sponsor. Most recently, Eric Schranz of Ultrarunnerpodcast.com ponders why Traci Falbo and Joe Fejes don’t have major sponsors despite being in the top 10 for UROY voting this year.
But here’s what people need to understand: companies don’t give ultra-runners sponsorships because they are good runners, they give sponsorships to runners because they think those runners will bring attention to their product (and in turn more business to the company). In a nutshell, top runners aren’t getting sponsorships because they get good results, top runners get sponsorships because they get attention. Yes, these things are closely related since a great race produces a lot of media attention, IF those results are at races that the media is covering.
And results aren’t the only things that garner attention. Companies are aware of an athlete’s social media presence: How many Twitter and Instagram followers do they have, do they have a blog (and how many readers does it have), how many ‘friends’ or ‘likes’ do they have on Facebook, Are they on Strava. Active on-line athletes have a much bigger influence an ultimately this is what companies are looking to leverage. One hateful letsrun thread questions how Sally McCrae could get a Nike sponsorship based on her racing history. Sally McCrae has a series of You Tube videos getting an average of 2,500 views a piece with one particularly popular one nearing 40,000 views. She has 7,000 Instagram followers and 3,500 Twitter followers. Her big smile, good looks, upbeat attitude and hearty laugh get her noticed at races. Teaming up with Billy Yang in Western Time, she got more attention for her finish at Western States (10th place) than pretty much any one else outside of the winners. Sally McCrae is not only a great runner, she is a social media super-star. Sally McCrae is a sponsorship dream.
One letsrun commenter chimed in: "[People] mistakenly believe that fast times result in money. Before the internet, this was indeed the case. Today being cool/popular through social networking gets you money."
Other great examples of this are Jenn Shelton, Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes and Anton Krupicka. Besides Anton, are any of them really running ultras any more? And yet they remain some of the most heavily sponsored athletes in our sport. Why? People know who they are - and not just ultrarunners. They have written or been in best selling books, they have big social media presences, and they are overall just very popular runners.
And it doesn't hurt that they are all good looking. Because looks get you noticed, too. Young, tan, chiseled athletes in the habit of running shirtless are going to have more companies seeking them out. Does this seem unfair? Well, I can tell you it kind of sucks to have a company basically ignore you because you "don't fit the image" they are looking for, but at the same time, I get it completely. Sex sells. Sponsored athletes are basically models for a company's gear and what company wouldn't want good looking models?? When consumers make a purchase, they believe that product will somehow make their life better. In the world of ultrarunning, the fantasy ideal is being young, carefree and able to run through the mountains all day. Models who have the looks and lifestyle that embody those qualities make it easier for a consumer to get the idea that a certain product will help them feel younger, look better and be able to run through the mountains all day. Who wants to buy a product that will make them feel like a 40-something year old who has to cut their runs short to get to work on time and take care of their kids? Most ultrarunners are already living that life!
But I also completely understand the desire for sponsorship. In 2009, when I started winning ultras, I was definitely keen to get a sponsor. It wasn't about the money or free products at all; I wanted the validation. But as I have gotten older and had more successes, I realize the running and the results are validation in themselves for all the hard work. Still, I am extremely thankful and appreciative for my sponsors. I have a huge amount of gratitude to Injinji, La Sportiva, Ultimate Direction, and Honey Stinger for supporting a pasty skinned, hash-tag challenged, plain Jane mom who is more comfortable running with her shirt on than off (my armpits rub. How does no one else have this problem??).
I still have lots of thoughts on the notion of ultrarunners "deserving" to be able to make a living off of their running (as I have seen in a few comments) and how much sponsored athletes influence the sale of products, but I'll stop here. I do think sponsorship is improving the level of this sport and bringing in more talent and that is a major benefit to the sport as a whole. But I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts on sponsorships in ultrarunning because I am sure there are many of things I haven't thought of (and talking about ultrarunning is almost as good as ultrarunning itself!).