Years ago, Nike made a value decision that sponsoring youth teams would pay off big when the kids got bigger and bought their own shoes. That decision included a second component - when a LeBron James turned pro, they'd already be in the Nike stable.
It's Nike versus adidas versus Under Armour, not to mention the legions of others that want a fat slice of the lucrative basketball pie. The youth teams at all levels get sponsored by somebody, and the teams at the elite level get enormous benefits in travel expenses and entry fees. The coaches often earn very good livings shepherding their charges through the tangled system. Some reportedly double their money, acting as runners for agents for the most heavily recruited ballers.
The money comes with strings, though. Ask Mike Flynn, who tried to set up a team for women, the Blue Star Select National Team in 2009. Two of the players that he invited to the squad were Nike athletes. The heirs of Bowerman were not amused.
"I am going to suggest to the other Nike teams not to play in any events that this team plays in," said Roland McAbee, coach for the Nike-sponsored Georgia Elite . . .If we stick together on this, Mike [Flynn] will have to play under-talented teams and it will be very hard for him to find competition. Also, if teams do not attend the Blue Star events, it will have the same effect along with not providing him the income to support this team. Nike should drop all of its sponsorship and support for anything Mike has."
The official Nike response was more restrained.
Nike spokesman Knox said "In regard to the opportunity for players being involved in representing a national team, those players are expected to return to their original Nike team for all July competitions."
Feel free to color me as a nut job, but in neither of those statements do I see a concern with what is best for the athlete or the sport. Indeed, the Nike statement makes it clear that the athletes act as a property of the sponsored teams. The players lack the control to decide where they will play - and as made clear in McAbee's statement, any individuals that try to leave the existing system must be punished.
The influence of the shoe companies actually dictates in many people's minds where a high school athlete attends college. If you follow the recruiting wars, which I don't in an intensive way, you hear rumblings that so-and-so won't be going to Illinois because it kid is an adidas product and the Illini play in Nikes. (Folks, I don't know the affiliations, I don't care about them, and I'm making it up on what they wear in Champaign.)
The Atlanta Track Club signed with Mizuno yesterday, a deal that moves us closer to the basketball model. At the plodder level where I run, it makes next to no difference at all. The races have had sponsors for years, from shoe companies to the local physical therapist.
The space I expect to see the most change occurs at the elite level. We've already seen a bit of that competition building as first Mary Cain, then Alexa Ephrainson, joined the Nike stable of athletes, both before they left high school. The Atlanta deal proposes to develop two Olympic athletes in time for the Tokyo Olympics. I understand the intent, but the means escape me. To become an Olympian requires almost one of a kind genetics, a willingness to work at a brutal level for years, and a good measure of luck to avoid injuries.
The number of people that meet those qualifications consists of a handful of runners - perhaps 500 in the entire country that have a realistic shot in the running events, fewer if we count only distance events like the 5K and marathon - the ones most likely to draw attention. The pressure to identify these athletes early in their careers will be paramount - five years to get athletes ready is not long unless they're already in the pipeline.
I expect that we'll see some of the strong high school runners get pulled into world of professionalism before they've had a chance to grow into fully formed people. Basketball went through a similar process when the first high school players started jumping right to the NBA. The league, after multiple expensive mishaps, instituted a program to assist the youngsters with the adjustment.
I hope that the Nike Project and the new Atlanta consortium does the same but I don't expect it. We're in the early phases of the monetization of running athletes by the companies eager to sow their brand in the field of 40 million runners. The sponsorships will drift down the line. Universities already have shoe contracts. Soon (if it hasn't happened), the best high school teams will have them. A system of haves and have-nots.
I welcome the support of the athletes. The strings that come with that support worries me, though. I want to know that the best interests of the athlete get served, first and foremost, and that the sport is honored.
I have my doubts, cynical old man that I'm turning into.
Run gently, friends - the payday is the run itself, at least for us.