For Athletes, Sponsorship Disputes can Kill the Competition

Sometimes it’s neither drugs, rule violations nor performance that complicate an athlete’s ability to compete, but rather, sponsorship disputes with corporations.

sponsorship disputesU.S. runner Nick Symmonds will soon be calling a sports lawyer, if his prior comments were any indication, to deal with his own sponsorship dilemma. The runner is involved in an ongoing dispute with American track officials over sponsors, due to the fact that his endorsing organization is different than that of U.S.A. Track & Field. The six-time outdoor national champion was asked to sign a contract promising that he would only wear Nike-branded gear at “official” events in Beijing for the world track and field championships, a request at odds with his endorsement by apparel company Brooks.

Runner refused to sign vague contract, removed from track and field championships

He explained that the vague nature of the contract the federation asked him to sign implied that he would be forced to wear Nike throughout his time in Beijing. He added that this would make him a bad investment for Brooks, Deadspin reported. USATF would not clarify to Symmonds which events, specifically, were considered “official.”

Symmonds told The New York Times prior to the deadline for signing the contract that if the federation walked back on his entry into the championships, scheduled to start Aug. 22, then he would have to speak with a lawyer.

Sunday night, the federation sent an email to Symmonds explaining that the organization had decided to replace him following his failure to sign the contract, according to ESPN. The runner seems disappointed in the federation’s decision, but asserted that he does not regret his choice to stand against what many track and field athletes deem to be unfair sponsorship rules. However, not every athlete believes he went about his act of rebellion in the right way.

“Nick is trying to stand up for what he believes in, but he has to do it sensibly in a business-like capacity,” Dee Dee Trotter, the bronze-winner in the 400 meters event in London in 2012, told ESPN. “We’re not going to change things overnight, and it makes better sense to wait to address the issue at the proper time. LeBron James didn’t get things done for the players by banging on the door himself.”

​Sponsorship disputes are present in all sports

Symmonds isn’t the first athlete to deal with sponsorship disputes with corporations. For example, a dust-ups arose between players and the NFL due the league’s association with audio equipment provider Bose, according to Sporting News. After the league made the company its official headphone sponsor, it banned the appearance of Beats products on official broadcasts. Soon after the ban, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was fined $10,000 for wearing Beats headphones after a game.

Then, as the most recent draft closed in, Beats made it past the league and with a sneaky marketing tactic. Draftees Amari Cooper, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston each answered their draft-day phone calls from their eventual respective teams while wearing Beats earbuds.

All sorts of athletes end up with endorsement deals, and some of these agreements may conflict with the sponsorships of the organizations they’re competing under. From football to track and field and everywhere in-between, sponsorship disputes and deals exist. Athletes, their agents and their lawyers must negotiate the sometimes complex situations that develop out of endorsement agreements at odds with each other.

“USATF is a strong advocate for athletes to have as many sources of revenue as possible,” Jill Geer, spokesperson for the USTAF, explained. “But the standard for when our team uniform and our team products must be worn is well-known, and it’s consistent with the rest of the industry within track and field, internationally and also in other sports.”

Greer added that the federation holds plenty of events and press conferences that allow athletes to wear their own gear, and that their apparel is only limited when they are officially representing the U.S.

Symmonds has stated that he hopes his actions will help stop the alleged exploitation of athletes by professional organizations, and has also asserted that he will sue to recover travel and visa costs, according to Sports Business Daily. Athletes who find themselves in similar sponsorship disputes, or who are concerned about conflicting sponsorships, should contact an attorney experienced in sports law to learn more.

Email this to someoneShare on LinkedIn4Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Tumblr0Share on Reddit0

Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

Comments are closed.