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!).
Pam, I love and appreciate all you wrote. Just one point on which I differ slightly. You ask, "Who wants to buy a product that will make them feel like a 40-something year old…?" Well, I would, since I'm in my mid-40s! What I mean is that companies would be smart to sponsor "middle-age mom types" for lack of a better description, like you and me, because we represent a big demographic of the sport. I want to see people like you, and awesome strong women in their 50s like Bev Anderson Abbs and Meghan Arboghast, because they're inspiring to me and I can relate to them more than to the hotties in their late 20s. So I'm holding out hope that companies will recognize our buying power and large presence in the sport, and then they'll sponsor athletes in that demographic with whom "regular Janes" can relate. Maybe I'm naive but that's my hope. Cheers!
My armpits rub when I run shirtless too!
Great and very timely post! I have just been wondering a lot recently about why and how people get sponsorships and you hit the nail on the head. I am seeing the same thing in the Netherlands, where a niche sport like ultra/trail running is even smaller than in the US, but booming in the last couple of years.
I would also add that knowing the right people helps as well as that apparently there often is no strategy behind sponsoring... an article on general sport sponsorship I was reading mentions that even big sponsorship deals in big sports often only come about because the CEO likes the sport.
Wonderful as usual, Pam. I agree with Sarah too. Women in their 30s, 40s, & 50s with families and jobs -- and money to spend on shoes for themselves and their families have to be a huge marketing demographic. And as fun as it is to look at ads of beautiful runners, I think the harried mom, plain-Jane, working-hard-to-fit-running-into-life would be more inspirational to more people. The runner who is both speedy and beautiful and young can be too untouchable to actually inspire.
Great post, Pam. So many factors at play. I tried to seek out sponsorship for a while, but being really embedded in the community is super important and I've never lived in a running spot (or been a model).
You also need to ASK for sponsorship and back it up with a resume that supports the value you can bring to the sponsor. Think of seeking out sponsors much like interviewing for jobs.
Very well said, Pam. Except the part where you don't think fast, tough female runners in their 40's aren't influential, and also totally hot. By far the most viewed pics on my blog are of your smiling mugs.
My sponsorship tracked right along with the rise of blogs and social media in the mid-2000's, more so than any race results. There's a direct correlation between how many photos I post, to how many shares and retweets occur, to the number of sponsors calling. It's a good place to start for those interested!
I think you really nailed it here! People (cough, letsrun forum, cough)seem to think that sponsorships are some sort of award given to folks who compete well - but they are just tools being used by companies who are trying to make money. And I don't mean that in a demeaning way, it is just the nature of running a business- without people consuming/purchasing your product, you have no company. It is what it is and I think people getting themselves bent out of shape with so-called "less deserving" athletes being sponsored are just not thinking about the system in the way you have laid out. As you note, they are actually the "most deserving" bc they are the ones that will serve the company best.
I second Sarah and Liza - you all - and folks like The Queen, Ann Trason and Bev are people I look up to, admire and would wish to emulate in many ways. You're showing me not only that it CAN be done, but how it's done and giving me - a 48 yr old female DINK who just completed her first ultra - ideas for the future as well as tips and examples for right now. (there are plenty of male Masters ultrarunners I follow too, but of course I feel closer to women)
I also wonder if there's a time issue - with non-sponsored jobs and families, you may perhaps have different priorities than twitter/facebook/gathering a following - not saying anything against those trying to make a living off sponsorship and racing who need to do that. It's just a different lifestyle and seems a somewhat a chicken/egg problem. If you have the time to build a following you can point to, you might get a sponsor, but if you're focused on other things, you might not, and sponsorship helps build followings. (and Sally does have a huge following, but is also a working mom, so I'm not sure where she falls in all this - she seems cool though and I enjoy learning from her)
Thanks for writing this!
This is a great post. (However, I live on the central coast of california and I run shirtless every day besides december-- and most days I feel like ripping my skin off its too hot, regardless of the armpit rubs!) For me, sponsorship is definitely about the looks- after all, they ARE competing companies looking for profit to keep making amazing products. But also, sponsorship allows for dreams to come true, people to share their story to inspire others (my top goal as an athlete), and the prestige elites have draws others to races or the sport. It is flipping awesome and super motivating to see a Salomon youtube video of Ricky Gates scrambling up a mountain or of Rob Krar gutting it out in the Grand Canyon overcoming incredible odds and mental "canyons". As a 20 yr old with wide eyes and a huge curiosity for the world, having role models that I can follow on instagram or the media or through my favorite brand's pages, is something that encourages me, adds goals to my always-growing "list" and gets me excited about running everyday. I totally get that ultra running is not a pretty sport and that most people cut their runs short for kids or work. (I fortunately do not have kids to worry about, but I am a full time student and have a part time job) It's an ideal to live off of being an athlete, and spend days in the mountains like Kilian Jornet. So, mad props to the athletes that are talented enough to do that, but even bigger props to the awesome athletes like you and sally that Do have jobs, kids, etc but still are able to train hard and race well.
Thanks so much for writing this post. I think you and Scott D. are right to stress how running sponsorship has changed tremendously with the rise of new digital networks. Contrary to what Kashi has said, at one point sponsorships actually were just given to people who competed well. Before digital social spaces were ubiquitous, the only way of garnering attention was to win races and get your name in ink. For better or worse, no more. This all reminds me of an article in this month's Atlantic about the changing idea of the 'artist' through the web's steady extension of the market into the individual.
Tim Olson is perfect for sponsor... He's got the look, he's cool, and he's a great runner!
People look for sponsorships because the sport has suddenly become ridiculously expensive. It's become expensive because it's become popular and that means that there's money to be made. I say: ignore the hype and go for a run, today, where you are, with as little gear as possible.
It's a shame because I think you are a fantastic role model for the sport of ultrarunning in all its forms and a great writer. Your blog really adds so much value for those who follow it, unlike the vast majority of social media posts which are just people showing off.
I just wanted to write to reiterate what Sarah and others have said. I think what you've written is getting at the truth about how sponsors choose athletes. At the same time, I read this article solely because it was written by you. You and Darcy Piceu (and there are others) are two big inspirations to me as a female runner in her late-30s with kids. I would like to see more sponsors supporting female runners generally. I imagine this is where the biggest growth for trail running companies will come in the next 10 years.
Pam: You're still my favorite URP interview EVER!!! I am a mom, 38yo, work full time in medicine as a PA and try to run as much as possible. I look up to people like you and Sarah who have to balance everything about life. Keep running, influencing, and sharing. We are watching and listening for advice.
Saw this via today's URP Daily News, reminded me of your post.
M- I saw that, too. Very much in line with what I was trying to say!
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