Eugene is currently at the center of the US track and field universe with U.S. Olympic Trials taking place at Hayward Field this week.
Each of the athletes that earn a chance to compete for their country will also be compelled to wear the Nike Swoosh on their jerseys, regardless of whether they are sponsored by the popular athletic company. Nike signed a contract with USATF in 1991 stipulating this, and USATF and Nike just extended the contract all the way to 2040. The $500 million extension, which kicks in next year, “significantly increases the overall support for Track & Field for athletes throughout the United States” according to an announcement on the USATF website.
Nick Symmonds, who dropped out of the trials earlier this week, has made headlines with his protests over athlete’s rights—or lack thereof—to wear non-Nike apparel. Last August, his refusal to sign a contract to wear Nike gear cost him a spot on the US team at the World Championships.
Symmonds has called Nike’s influence over running a monopoly.
“It’s important to remember I’m not an employee of Nike,” Symmonds told the Oregonian in 2013. “I’m an independent contractor, and toeing the party line and helping Nike get a monopoly hurts me in terms of renegotiations. It hurts the entire body of professional track and field athletes if there is a monopoly of one or two shoe companies.”
But at University of Oregon, business experts are hesitant to slap the “monopoly” label on Nike’s influence.
“I don’t think they [Nike] have a legal monopoly,” said Josh Gordon, head of the sports business program at UO. “Do they have tremendous influence? Absolutely. The real issue is… Nike is one of the few players who have stepped up with money in this industry.”
For a sport that crops up in the mainstream every four years, the benefits of having a sponsor on Nike’s level are obvious. However, the exclusive relationship raises a number of problems for the sport.
“I think it’s positive that there are opportunities for Track and Field athletes that wouldn’t be possible [without Nike’s involvement],” Gordon said. “[But] it isn’t a particularly good thing to have one player and have it driving so many decisions in the sport.”
Craig Leon, MBA program manager in the Warsaw Sports Marketing program at UO, agrees that Nike’s involvement isn’t exactly a monopoly.
“Whenever you have high profile sponsors of anything, who have a lot of influence, they are going to protect their sponsorship brand,” Leon said. “Which I think is challenging for other brands, but I don’t view it as a monopoly.”
Monopoly or no, Nike’s partnership does appear to be helping the shoe company corner the market for themselves.
“There is certainly hesitation from other sponsors,” said Leon, who runs marathons himself and has a contract with Japanese sportswear brand Mizuno. “They realize they maybe can’t activate their sponsorships on the biggest stages. They think, ‘Well, it’s not worth it if we can’t get a return on our investment.’”
Both agree that changes need to take place somewhere along the line.
“I think there is an opportunity [for other companies to step in],” Leon said. “But right now, Nike doesn’t want that. They are the only logo on there and they want to protect that. If track and field as a sport is a little bit more progressive and creative, it can create a better model.”
The Emerald reached out the Nike for comment, but has not yet heard back.