By Jonathan Gault
January 24, 2020
Sponsorship contracts are one of the most secretive things in the sport of track & field. Basic details such as their value and length, widely available in major professional sports such as football or basketball, are hidden behind the walls of nondisclosure agreements.
Track & field doesn’t have a draft, and there are no age limits: athletes are free to sign a contract whenever they please. So how does a sponsorhip deal come about? LetsRun.com decided to investigate.
This week, we’ll take you behind the scenes of the transition from collegiate athlete to professional, from finding an agent to signing a contract to case studies of two of the top athletes from the college class of 2019. After interviews with over two dozen athletes, coaches, agents, and shoe company executives, here’s your three-part guide to how to turn pro in track & field.
Part I of the series, which explained how athletes find agents, is here; Part II, which discusses everything that goes into signing a shoe contract, is here. Today’s installment, the final article in our series, takes a look at the process of turning professional through the eyes of two of 2019’s top recruits.
Any athlete fortunate enough to sign a professional track & field contract has beaten extremely long odds. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were over 1 million boys’ and girls’ high school track & field athletes in 2017-18. Just 5.4% of that number compete in the NCAA, with just 42.0% of that 5.4% competing at the Division I level. That’s 24,527 Division I athletes. And of those 24,527, only 46 (32 seniors and 14 underclassmen) — just 0.18% — signed professional contracts after the 2019 track season. This article will focus on two of them, Stanford’s Grant Fisher and Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald.
The first step in turning professional is one Fisher and McDonald mastered: be really, really good at running.
“The NCAA is the best filter for talent,” says Danny Mackey, who has been head coach of the Brooks Beasts since 2013. “I used to be like, oh, once they get in here and we start doing all these different things in training, you know, weights and drills, very technical with them, they’re gonna improve. Now I think you need that high baseline level of talent as a starting point because they need that first as well as the little things in training we do.”
In most cases, if you haven’t displayed prowess by the end of your senior year in college, you just might not be talented enough to be a top-flight pro. Of the 31 athletes to qualify for the US World Championship team in the distance events in 2019, 19 of them (61%) won at least one NCAA title while in college.
Winning an NCAA title is usually — but not always — enough to secure a professional deal for a distance runner (it’s a different story if you’re a field eventer), and both Fisher (one) and McDonald (four) accomplished that during college. But even among athletes lucky enough to earn a contract, you have to be truly exceptional — breaking collegiate records or coming close — to make the big bucks straight away.
“If the expectation is that you’re [automatically] getting a six-figure contract, you’re not getting that,” says Wisconsin coach Mick Byrne. “You probably could count on one hand the number of athletes [per year] coming out that get that.”
After sparring several times in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track, McDonald and Fisher ended their collegiate careers at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in June 2019. As a new year dawns, both now have professional contracts as they chase their first Olympic teams. This is how they got there.
***Grant Fisher Has Long Dreamt Of Being A Pro
Even before he arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2015, Grant Fisher was already thinking about running professionally one day. Considering Fisher won two Foot Locker titles and broke 4:00 for the mile in high school, it seemed like a natural end goal.
“In recruiting Grant, certainly that was the conversation — ‘Hey, I want to be a world-class athlete, I want to run as a pro for the next 10 years,’ and I think in many ways he chose Stanford because he believed that was the place that would get him there,” says Chris Miltenberg, who coached Fisher at Stanford from 2015-19 and is now the head coach at North Carolina.
Through two years in Palo Alto, Fisher was on the professional path. He had run 13:30 for 5,000 meters and qualified for the Olympic Trials as a 19-year-old freshman. He finished his sophomore year in 2017 by winning the NCAA 5,000-meter title, the first American to do so since Galen Rupp in 2009.
That was when agents first began expressing their interest to Miltenberg.
“It was very, very professional,” Miltenberg says. “It wasn’t like, Hey, he should leave college…It was more of Hey, when the time comes for Grant, we think we can help him a lot.”
Byrne started hearing the same things in relation to McDonald, who came to Wisconsin from Sydney in 2014, after McDonald ran 13:15 in the summer of 2017.
McDonald went on to win the Australian 5,000 title in February 2018, and while Fisher could not repeat as NCAA champion that year, he still remained an attractive pro prospect, finishing 3rd at NCAAs and 6th at USAs. By the time the two athletes entered their senior year, in 2018-19, it was clear they would be in high demand.
Before the cross country season, Miltenberg and Fisher made a plan to navigate the year that would allow Fisher to achieve his athletic goals and minimize the stress of his looming professional decision.
“We said, we’re gonna get in front of this now,” Miltenberg says. “Because this is only gonna intensify. With all my seniors, ones who are going to run professionally or ones that aren’t, I think the sooner we can have a conversation and be talking about, hey, what does the future look like, [the better]. Versus acting like it’s not coming. It’s coming!…The worst thing to do is not talk about it.”
They decided that Fisher would hold off on meeting with agents and shoe companies until December, when the cross country season was over.
From the outside, it seemed obvious who Fisher would pick. He was teammates at Stanford with Thomas Ratcliffe, son of agent Tom Ratcliffe — Fisher even hosted Thomas on his Stanford recruiting trip. The elder Ratcliffe has a tight connection with Jerry Schumacher — Ratcliffe represents 12 of the members of the Bowerman Track Club — and Bowerman, with its stable of stars and distance focus, seemed like the perfect landing spot for Fisher and his skill set. Sean McGorty, one of Fisher’s best friends, was also represented by Ratcliffe and ran for Bowerman.
But by all accounts, Fisher kept an open mind throughout the process, speaking with a variety of agents and brands and keeping detailed notes on every interaction. By the end of December, he had narrowed his options down significantly, but had yet to make a final decision.
Byrne also had close ties to Ratcliffe — Byrne ran at Providence College with Ratcliffe’s brother, and the two vacation together each year on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. Ratcliffe was interested in McDonald as well, but he was hardly alone. Only the most desirable potential clients are deemed worthy of on-campus visits, and that year, half a dozen agents came to Madison to woo McDonald.
“Everybody was coming out of the woodwork looking for a piece of Morgan McDonald,” Byrne says. “…There’s parts of it that can be pretty vicious. It’s the same as in college recruiting. You can go negative about one group or you can just stick and focus on your own particular group. It’s what we call negative recruiting. I’ve seen both sides of it, and fortunately, Morgan’s a smart kid and he can see through the bullshit. There was some of that, to be quite honest with you.”
Like Fisher, McDonald remained undecided heading into the track season.
Athletes can also take visits to shoe companies, which are similar to official college visits taken by high school recruits. Officially, the NCAA considers these visits “tryouts” for professional teams, and as such there are rules: the athlete cannot miss any classes, and the visit can only last 48 hours; anything beyond that and the athlete must cover expenses out of their own pocket. Fisher went on two such visits, one in February and one during Stanford’s spring break in March. McDonald went on a visit to Bowerman after winning a pair of titles at the NCAA indoor meet.
***It’s Decision Time
As the spring track season began and the clock ticked toward decision time, Fisher and McDonald were both feeling the pressure. Fisher and Miltenberg were meeting daily in Miltenberg’s office, and while Fisher’s future plans weren’t the only topic of discussion, they came up frequently. In Madison, Byrne could tell that the looming decision was starting to stress out his star athlete. McDonald had just returned from Nike and was starting to plan another visit when Byrne had to put his foot down.
“It was becoming a distraction,” Byrne says. “That’s when I had to say, ‘Morgan, we need to concentrate on what’s going on.’ We were running out of time. He didn’t have a regional qualifier…I just had to say it once. Morgan is pretty focused. He knew that he had to buckle down and put all that aside and he did that.”
Byrne also wanted to ensure that he didn’t exert any undue influence on McDonald’s decision.
“There’s probably a time where I was leaning toward one agent,” Byrne says. “And I realized that [in] a couple of conversations, I may be influencing Morgan subconsciously. And that’s when I decided we needed to end this conversation until after NCAAs. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much you try, I said from the beginning to Morgan, this is going to be your decision.”
As McDonald shifted his focus to his upcoming showdown with Fisher at NCAA outdoors, Fisher was doing the same thing. After the Pac-12 meet, Fisher had shortened his list to two agents and two pro groups, and Miltenberg could sense the pressure was creeping in.
“I can recall the conversation clearly going into regionals, like, ‘Okay Grant, for the next 15 days, tell everybody we’re going quiet,’” Miltenberg says.
The strategies worked. Both men were at their best at the NCAA meet in Austin, waging a memorable last-lap battle in which McDonald (again) prevailed, closing his last lap in 52.91 seconds to Fisher’s 53.61. A day later, Fisher agreed to be represented by Ratcliffe. A few days after that, McDonald signed with Chris Layne and Total Sports.
Both Fisher and McDonald, through their agents, declined to be interviewed for this story.
McDonald’s decision to go with Total surprised Byrne — “I thought he was leaning one way and after NCAA championships outdoors, he went in a different direction” — but he had no issue with it. More than anything, he was glad McDonald had come to his own decision.
Fisher, ultimately, signed with Nike and the Bowerman Track Club. Sources told LetsRun.com that a rival shoe company offered Fisher a base contract worth at least $50,000 per year more than what Fisher got from Nike.
“Even if he makes teams, he can’t make up that amount of money,” said one of the sources, who requested anonymity. “And you have to look at the teams. Let’s think about how good Grant is. Grant’s like their 7th-best 5k guy right now? You gotta be the #1 or #2 Bowerman guy to make the team. And right now you’re probably their 7th-best guy (though not all of those athletes will run the 5,000 at the US Olympic Trials). So you need to think about your base contract, because bonuses, you’re probably not going to see those anytime soon…You’re giving up around $300,000 over the next five or six years to join a team, are you okay with that?
“For all I knew, there was no amount of money that was going to make him go somewhere else. But I also know he was doing his due diligence. He was calling every agent, he was talking to every brand. He was doing more research than I practically have ever seen any athlete do.”
Fisher followed the same path as McGorty and Emily Infeld, who were also collegiate stars under Miltenberg who signed with Ratcliffe and Bowerman. All three athletes shared the same belief about their futures, which is also espoused by Miltenberg, Ratcliffe, and Schumacher: make the decision that will allow you to reach your highest athletic level, and in the long term, the money will follow. It’s a philosophy that unites every member of the Bowerman Track Club, why athletes like Shelby Houlihan and Courtney Frerichs grind away at altitude camp instead of chasing paydays on the Diamond League circuit: peak performance at global championships is the goal; everything else is secondary.
“Jerry Schumacher gave Emily the advice of, hey do what’s going to be best for your running, and over the course of your career, you’ll make the most money,” Miltenberg says. “And I’ve reiterated that so many people over the years. It’s not about money. None of you guys are making money that’s going to change your life the day you retire. What are your goals? And then go find the place that will help you achieve your goals.”
***Do Your Homework
Though McDonald drew interest from several groups, including Bowerman and Australia’s top distance group, the Nic Bideau-coached Melbourne Track Club, he ultimately elected to sign with Under Armour, a relative upstart in the distance world. McDonald’s decision continued a trend: in each of the past three signing classes, the NCAA’s top distance runner eschewed traditional powerhouses Nike and adidas in order to become the face of a smaller brand. It began with Edward Cheserek signing with Skechers in 2017, followed by Justyn Knight, around whom Reebok built an entire professional group in 2018 (Reebok is owned by adidas). McDonald will remain in Madison, coached by Byrne, with Total Sports’ Stephen Haas on hand to help in Flagstaff when McDonald needed altitude training.
Why Under Armour? For one, Under Armour sponsors Wisconsin’s athletic department, so McDonald had already been racing in their gear. It’s also worth noting that Haas, his agent, serves as the coach of an Under Armour-sponsored training group in Flagstaff. Haas has an LLC into which Under Armour pays the budget; so far, Haas says, he has not collected any of that money as a salary, instead using it for things such as physiotherapy and massage for UA’s athletes, though he says that could change moving forward.
“I don’t view it as a conflict of interest because I work on commission [as an agent],” Haas says. “When I sign an athlete to Total Sports, my goal is to get them the best contract that I can get possible, whether that’s with Nike or whether that’s with Under Armour, or whether that’s with HOKA…Morgan is not part of my group, so I think that’s self-explanatory. Under Armour wanted to sign Morgan for the relationship with the University of Wisconsin.”
Haas is far from the only agent with connections to a particular brand. The majority of Ratcliffe’s clients at Kimbia Athletics run for Nike and the Bowerman TC. Global Athletics & Marketing, the agency led by Mark Wetmore, lists 42 athletes on its website; 30 of them, including Tirunesh Dibaba, Jenn Suhr, and Noah Lyles, are sponsored by adidas. Sandra Nel-Kurmann, the wife of adidas sports marketing head Spencer Nel, works part-time for Global Athletics as their director of marketing (she is not involved in sportswear contract negotiations).
The reality: the running world is small, personal connections matter, and some agents do a large percentage of their business with a particular brand. It’s important for an athlete to do their homework before signing so they’re aware of those connections, but a good agent would be foolish to do business with one company exclusively. In addition to McDonald, Haas’ 2019 signing class included Oregon’s Jessica Hull, who signed with Nike, and Michigan State’s Justine Kiprotich, who joined Haas’ training group in Flagstaff despite signing with HOKA. Ratcliffe represents Brooks Beasts Henry Wynne and Izaic Yorks. One of Global’s biggest stars is 800 world champion and American record holder Donavan Brazier, who runs for Nike. Former teen sprint phenom Candace Hill is also a Global client; she signed with Asics when she went pro in high school.
“A general rule of thumb is look at the other athletes that [your agent] represents,” says University of Mississippi coach Ryan Vanhoy, who coached 2019 US 1500 champ Craig Engels in college. “If you are a 5k guy, do they have a lot of 5k guys? What meets do the certain agencies tend to have their athletes in? Obviously, if you are world-class, then getting into a meet’s not going to be that difficult. But if you’re at that next tier down, sort of scratching to get to that next level and your agent has a lot of guys that are at your ability or better, it may be difficult for them to put you forward for a particular lane in a race.”
It’s also important to remember that many meets use agencies to put together their professional fields. Global Athletics is responsible for the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix and the adidas Boost Boston Games. Flynn Sports handles the NYRR Millrose Games. Jos Hermens’ agency, Global Sports Communication, runs the Shanghai Diamond League. Many marathons (though none of the World Marathon Majors) use agencies for their professional fields as well.
All this can be a lot for a 22-year-old to take in as they make decisions that will affect their professional future, especially the ones who have to weigh those decisions while extending their season through USAs or beyond. But that’s the way it is. Welcome to the real world. Welcome to professional track & field.
Talk about the series on our fan forum/messageboard. MB: LRC Investigates: How To Turn Pro In Track & Field
Part I of the series, on how to find an agent and whether they’re worth it, can be found here: LRC How To Turn Pro In Track & Field, Part I: Finding an Agent.
Part II, which explains everything that goes into signing a shoe contract, is here: LRC How To Turn Pro In Track & Field, Part II: Signing the Shoe Contract
If you enjoyed this series, check out this article from 2018: LRC Pro Runners’ Salaries: How Much Do Professional Runners Make? We Unveil One of The Sport’s Biggest Secrets.