A two-time Olympian from the Pacific Northwest is renting out part of his body on eBay to make a point about the earning prospects for elite American runners. This week's auction is the latest gambit by outspoken middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds to take on his sport's governing boards.
The reigning U.S. 800-meter champion pats his muscular shoulder after a recent practice in Seattle to show the nine square inches of skin available to the highest bidder. The auction winner gets to place a temporary tattoo on Symmonds' right shoulder for the duration of the 2016 outdoor track season.
"I want to look like NASCAR out there," said Symmonds, warming up to the possibilities. "I want to have every square inch covered with a logo and I want to be paid for each square inch of that advertising space."
Why would a celebrated Olympian resort to selling skin space on eBay? He's done it once before. He made $11,100 from one tattoo sponsor, Milwaukee-based marketing agency Hanson Dodge Creative, before the 2012 London Games. But Symmonds has to cover up or remove any individual sponsor logos at track's highest-profile events including the U.S. Olympic trials and the Summer Games. Only small logos of the team uniform makers are allowed there, effectively limiting athletes' earnings potential. Unlike some other countries, U.S. Olympic hopefuls receive no government support.
"We still kind of exist under these semi-pro, mostly amateur governing bodies," Symmonds complained. "Basically, what they have done is they confiscated all of the advertising space. They pimp us out to the highest bidder. We're lucky if we get a few of the scraps that they toss us at the end of the day."
Symmonds acknowledged he is actually luckier than most. He can train full time for the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games and doesn’t have to work at a second job to make ends meet. He said he makes "quality earnings" from endorsements, appearance fees, prize money and several entrepreneurial businesses.
Driven to bring change
But the champion half-miler is driven to change his sport's business model, and the auction of his shoulder space is just one of the means to that end. Symmonds makes common cause with college football and basketball players and other competitors.
"You also see NCAA athletes unionizing together and demanding they control their own name and image, demanding that they receive some of the billions of dollars that are exchanged in events like March Madness and the football playoffs," Symmonds said. "This is the future."
To hasten the future, Symmonds launched an antitrust lawsuit this winter against the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track and Field. The suit was filed in the name of a caffeinated chewing gum company called Run Gum, co-founded by Symmonds and his mentor Sam Lapray. The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit as groundless. A federal judge in Oregon could rule any day now.
The USOC declined an interview request because of the pending litigation. But its legal filings make clear it believes it needs sponsorship exclusivity to generate the revenue to support athlete development and put on competitions. The attorney for the USOC equated what Symmonds wants to "ambush" advertising.
"Run Gum seeks to free ride on the USOC’s activities and to appropriate for its own commercial purposes the brand, goodwill, and popular audience of the Olympic trials. That effort lacks any legal support, and it threatens the ability of the USOC to deliver on its mission," wrote USOC attorney Bruce Campbell in his motion to dismiss.
On its face, the Run Gum lawsuit is just about logo placement at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. But Symmonds sees this as a chance to crack the sport federations' armor.
"It sends a loud and clear message that we're coming for these governing bodies," Symmonds said.
USATF, the governing board for track and field, is implementing a new revenue sharing plan this year in the wake of a lucrative long-term sponsorship deal with Nike. Olympic-caliber runners and throwers can potentially reap tens of thousands of dollars in stipends, medal bonuses, and travel and health care subsidies.
The self-described "disrupter," Symmonds, wants more -- a 50 percent revenue sharing model with track and field's national and international federations and the national and international Olympic committees.
"Nobody has been able to make it work for both parties at this point," observed Craig Leon, a professional distance runner who also manages the sports marketing master's program at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon.
Leon said he can imagine ways to tweak the economics of professional track and field, but he's "not optimistic" the sport's business model will change quickly, short of a court order.
He noted that the top Olympic sponsors spend a lot of money, to put it mildly.
"They want to protect that,” Leon said.
United front needed, now lacking
"I think athletes appreciate what Nick has done. I appreciate what Nick has done," added Leon, putting the shoe on the other foot.
"It takes that kind of a person who is outspoken, has a little bravado, to be able to do that. But until Nick can rally and galvanize the support of his fellow athletes as a whole, I find it hard to believe one person can make substantial change."
"It's been even more complicated by the advent of social media, and both athletes and brands being able to reach large audiences," Leon said in an interview with public radio Tuesday.
The 32-year-old Symmonds agreed it is hard to unionize in what is largely an individual sport, although he takes heart from the fact that tennis players did it.
Symmonds began running in his youth in Boise. He signed his first professional contract with Nike after graduating from Willamette University. In early 2014 Symmonds switched his allegiance to Seattle-based Brooks Running. He now trains with the Brooks Beasts Track Club in Seattle.
Brooks teammate Katie Mackey lends her support. The former University of Washington standout said fewer sponsor restrictions would help track and field to grow.
"Loosening these regulations and bringing more money into the sport will make the sport more popular," Mackey said. "The more people who are invested, the more marketing money will go into it."
Mackey wishes American track and field could be as popular as it is in Europe, where meet organizers fill big stadiums with rabid fans. European track promoters provide free travel and lodging to athletes and pay appearance fees and big-time prize money.
With his eBay auction ending on Thursday, Symmonds is taking his campaign online under the heading "Own Your Skin." He hopes to enlist more Olympians to his cause around the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon this July.
After a session of drills on the purple Husky track in Seattle last week, Symmonds expressed confidence in his conditioning ahead of his national title defense and bid for a third Olympics.
Symmonds stayed home from last year's IAAF World Championships in Beijing due to a dispute involving athletes’ and sponsors’ rights. He refused to sign what he considered a vague and overly-restrictive contract that would have required him to wear only Nike apparel during the meet.