I’ve had several discussions with people (which is different than discussion with my cats) over the past year about money and sports. It stimulated this post.
Sports are big money. Advertising pours billions of dollars into sports and sports sponsorships. Here’s my perspective. Sports are merely a form of entertainment. Instead of watching a movie, soap opera, game show or news program for that matter, we watch sports. The drama in sports is more real than most all TV programs… heck, even reality programs aren’t reality. It is actually for this reason (seeing sports as entertainment) that I really don’t have an issue with athletes earning the money they do. We don’t seem to complain when the models on Deal or No Deal earn six figures for standing around opening brief cases. We don’t bat an eyelash at actors earning millions for a movie. And we don’t seem to complain about our favorite sitcom actors earning a million bucks per 30-minute show. And much like stage/TV performers their careers can be gone in a season – never to be heard from again. So, strike while the iron is hot and make your money.
Still many people have issues with an athlete earning millions of dollars per season or even per game in the major sports (football, baseball, basketball)! Michael Phelps, in a minor sport – swimming – an Olympic sport toiled in virtual anonymity for years. Now, according to a comment on TV recently by his agent, he will earn perhaps more than $100 million in the wake of last year’s 8 gold medals (despite his inhaling issues).
This brings me around to track & field and road race athletes. Certainly, there are a number of them who earn a living by racing and winning. Some sign lucrative contracts with major running shoe manufacturers.
Like Usain Bolt and Puma; from whom I have an autographed copy of Pumas with his now defunct 9.72 WR – very cool… thank you brother Jim.
A minority of elite runners get appearance money to run races. Some get money to act as early pacemakers for world records in races. A smaller number yet actually get some kind of stipend (from a governmental type agency – like the USATF; or from equipment companies – like adidas & Puma) to live on while training. The vast majority of elite runners earn their money from racing… racing well.
Agents of some of these runners (who take a cut of their earnings) run some of their runners into the ground racing all over the US or even world every week in order to make money. Agents (not runners or coaches) have been known to force their athletes to race excessively. Appearance fees plus performance bonuses keep both the agent and athlete in the money. Meanwhile, for so many of these runners they never reach their best performances chasing the money. Over-racing, over-traveling, under-training contribute ultimately to some number of runners NOT achieving their potential and burnout. But, what’s the difference from a movie star working day and night month after month to put out multiple movies in a single year?
So, what is the effect of racing for the money? In the US a number of runners have foregone college to hit the pro ranks (Alan Webb is one good example) but most stick it out and go pro after their degrees. Quite a number of foreign athletes like Kenyans & Ethiopians certainly take the pro route. They have a lot less options in their countries and the pay is higher than anything they can make in their countries. Many agents now negotiate with big meet promoters and only race their athletes in the highest bidder’s meet. [This is a reason some of the big names never meet head-to-head during the race season.]
This is tough. I think it might be the equivalent to football and basketball players being paid only for time on the field or court and/or only when they score or tackle someone. It would force players to be playing all the time. Anytime they sat out they lose money. For the average worker, perhaps it can be likened to being on 100% commission-based pay. And of course nobody gets paid for training or recovery in these cases. How many of us work on 100% commission? (I know… some do; but that is a very small segment of the population.)
The last point I want to comment on is the ridiculous premise long-held by various sports authorities (mainly Olympic sports) about amateurism (well renamed to Shamateurism). Though it is has changed over the past 20 years or so there still are debates about the “purity of amateur sports.” What bullshit. Long before pay was allowed athletes from various countries (notably Eastern Block Europe) were paid to be athletes. College athletes have been paid to go to play sports (albeit shoestring pay) under the guise of getting an education. Monetary support for athletes has always existed. It has only varied in amount; and whether it is over-the-table or under-the-table; or disguised in the name of getting an education.
To me – everyone should just get over it. If someone can earn a living by doing what they love while entertaining others… more power to them. Money itself does not water down athletics. Money is not the root of all evil. Money is not why runners perform or don’t perform. Money is not the reason someone set a world record, national record, meet record or personal record. Records will continue to be set with or without money involved. But isn’t it great that some talented people can make a living doing what they are passionate about while entertaining the masses – and providing us with the best reality programming imaginable!