At the professional level, track and field and running is primarily an individual sport. However, athletes often benefit from having a team to support them as they pursue a professional career. Ideally, “Team You” takes care of the logistical aspects of a professional running career while you focus on your training and competition.
Probably, yes. Most professional runners benefit from having an agent. But the decision to hire an agent is not an automatic one. Some runners can do without an agent. However, thinking about going without an agent requires a good understanding of what services an agent provides, and under what circumstances those services might be necessary.
Tearing up the Track or Ruling the Roads
Although the training centers operate differently depending on funding, location and coaching, the goal is similar – to improve the competitive level of U.S. distance running both nationally and internationally. Athletes are prepared to compete on the track, the roads and in cross country.
With limited spots for athletes in any one event, international track and field meetings are the most selective of all competitions. Your agent will take care of negotiating your entry into meets, including any appearance fees, and will typically assist in making travel arrangements. Bottom Line: when it is time to focus on racing in the spring and summer, you need an agent to get you into the right meets.
If you are considering a career on the roads competing on the USA Running Circuit, an agent is less important. There are numerous U.S. Championships at distances from 5k to the marathon. Entry into these races is less selective and can easily be accomplished without an athlete representative. Race entry information and contacts, and applicable qualifying standards and eligibility requirements, can be found on the USA Track & Field website.
It should be noted that appearance fees for competition in major marathons can require significant negotiations. Sure, gaining entry into a marathon field is not as difficult as gaining a spot in the 800 at the Prefontaine Classic. But, negotiating and maximizing your appearance value may well require an agent's help.
The Three C’s: Convenience, Contacts, and Cost
Of course, many professional runners compete in events both on and off the track. Beyond the type of career you envision, the decision to use an athlete representative is based largely on three C’s: Convenience, Contacts, and Cost.
1. Convenience. Having an agent take care of the details is easier than doing it yourself. Getting sponsors or gaining entry into meets can be difficult and stressful. Depending on your personality, an agent may be essential, allowing you to focus on training so you don’t have to sweat over making travel arrangements or negotiating a shoe deal.
2. Contacts. Agents have contacts with shoe companies and meet directors that most athletes do not. Your agent should be able to connect you with the necessary people and companies in the sport. Similarly, an agent can make you appear more professional to both meet directors and potential sponsors. Potential sponsors see you as more serious thus increasing their confidence that their investment in you is secure. Your agent should work hard in an attempt to secure a shoe deal or other endorsement deal. In addition to getting you into meets, this is an agent’s primary responsibility.
3. Cost. The cost of an agent can be significant but an agent can be a worthwhile investment for many professional runners. Typically, an agent will require a 15% commission to be paid on any money earned including: (a) shoe company endorsement contract, (b) meeting or race appearance fees; and (c) prize money. Additionally, it is typical for an agent to charge a 20% commission on any and all endorsement contracts outside of your primary shoe deal. An athlete’s agreement with an agent - including the percentages - can be negotiated, but most athletes have little bargaining power because the average professional runner does not generate a huge amount of revenue. And unfortunately, the less money you make the more precious each dollar becomes. While an athlete with a $1,000,000 contract may not feel as much of an impact from an agent’s 15% commission, an athlete with a $30,000 contract makes a much greater sacrifice by giving up 15% to an agent. However, it should be noted that, in many cases, the higher paid athletes subsidize the athletes at lower income levels. Your commission payments are a “business expense” and you should be sure to consult with a tax professional (see below) if you are unsure how to take advantage of business expense deductions under the Internal Revenue Code.
Once you have decided to hire an athlete representative, there are several factors that should be considered to find the right match for you. Athlete representatives must be approved and certified by USATF and the IAAF. If you hire your cousin to be your agent, he or she will need to be certified by USATF and pass the IAAF Athlete Representative Exam. Certification information can be found on the USATF website.
Stable of Athletes
When assessing agents, it is important to consider the agent’s “stable” of athletes. One of the best ways to assess who might be a good fit for you is to look at who else the agent represents. While some agents have very diversified portfolios, others primarily represent a certain type of athlete within track and field. Track and field and running encompasses an extraordinarily diverse group of athletes whose interests are not always aligned. If you are considering a career in professional distance running, you may benefit from looking at agents that represent other distance runners. The list provided has contact information for several agents who represent distance runners in the United States and beyond.
In addition, agents who represent other world-class athletes often have an easier time getting more of their athletes into the most selective meets. As discussed above, the importance of this is a sliding scale: the more track meets you want to run in, particularly abroad, the more necessary this may be.
Beyond getting you into meets and races, an agent’s primary job is to secure endorsements and sponsorships. The primary income stream for most professional runners is the shoe contract. Because an agent’s revenue stream is dictated to a large degree by the revenue streams of their athletes, agents are particularly adept at negotiating shoe company endorsement contracts and assessing the current value of runners from an endorsement perspective. When considering who to hire as an agent, you should not be afraid to ask what he or she thinks your value is.
Other endorsement contracts are harder to come by and any income earned from other endorsements may be relatively small. Agents may or may not always be looking for ways to promote their athletes in various ways that could generate revenue. However, never forget that your agent works for you. Don’t be afraid to present ideas and to explore other avenues for sponsorship. That said, it is important to avoid cluttering your schedule in pursuit of a few additional dollars. You still need to focus primarily on your performance, and not on income, as the latter comes with the former.
Ultimately, your choice of an agent may come down to who you like and trust the most. A component to all of this is personal fit. Talk with several agents and interview them to see who you like. REMEMBER: If you are an NCAA student-athlete you need to be very careful in speaking with agents and athlete representatives. It is better for your coach to talk with the agents initially and to perhaps set up some meetings to occur soon after your final NCAA race. You cannot agree to be represented by or sign with an agent if you want to maintain your NCAA eligibility. Consult with your coach and/or your school's NCAA compliance director if you have questions.
As you embark on your career, you might want to consider an attorney with experience in the world of athlete representation and sports marketing to help you with other aspects of your career beyond that which your agent would traditionally handle. Your agent might refer you to a lawyer, but you—the athlete—are ultimately in charge of who is on Team You. Your lawyer can help with the following:
• Tax issues
• Real estate acquisitions
• Estate planning
• Protection of intellectual property including your rights of publicity
• Formation of business entities (both for profit and non-profit)
• Arbitrations (Court of Arbitration for Sport) including eligibility and team selection disputes
• Anti-doping compliance and defense
Should you test positive for a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency during an in-competition or out-of-competition test, you would be wise to consult with a lawyer to help navigate the enforcement process with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. (See the section on Anti-doping compliance for more.)
A financial advisor or tax professional can help you navigate the new world of being self-employed. Again, many agents can coordinate this relationship for you, but you can also find someone with whom you feel comfortable. While many people do their own taxes, the responsibility for managing your money as a self-employed individual can be more complex than for the average taxpayer.
If you are getting money from a shoe company or from another sponsor, the company will not withhold income taxes because you are not an employee. As a self-employed professional athlete, you will be entitled to many business expense deductions, but also be subject to additional self-employment taxes. Also, you will have to submit to the IRS quarterly estimated tax payments or face penalties. Money earned in multiple states and in foreign countries can further complicate your tax picture.
Matt Lane is a certified IAAF Athlete Representative and an attorney with a practice in business and sports law at the firm of Preti Flaherty with offices in Portland, Maine, and Boston. His sports law practice focuses on representation of athletes and entities in a wide range of matters including anti-doping issues, sports arbitrations, NCAA regulations and compliance, nonprofit formation and general counsel and advice to professional athletes. He was also a professional runner sponsored by Nike from 2001-2006, competing primarily in the 5000 meters as well as the marathon, and was an 11-time All-American while at William & Mary, where he holds five school records. His law degree is from the University of Maine School of Law.