For graduating seniors, this is a very exciting, but often intimidating and confusing time of the year.
For those who have had a successful NCAA career, the transition from the NCAA ranks to a professional career in our great sport brings about many unfamiliar circumstances, and often difficult decisions. Paramount of these are deciding on the training group/coaching set-up, and which agent to choose. We asked Lauryn Williams – a multi-time World and Olympic medalist (and also one of the very, very few athletes to have ever medaled in a Summer AND a Winter Olympic Games) to offer some advice to the soon-to-be pro athlete.
Firstly – thanks for joining us Lauryn. As an athlete who enjoyed immense success in both the NCAA and professional ranks, your opinion on this most important of topics is both required, and respected by many. Graduating seniors are often placed in very difficult positions, and are asked to make extremely important decisions without having the required background and understanding in the professional ranks of the sport. This unfamiliarity makes it very difficult for them to make an informed decision at this crucial stage in their careers, in an area that has a massive impact in determining the success or failure of the remainder of their careers – namely – their choice of coach and agent.
As you now begin to get more involved in aiding young athletes (partly from your work with the TFAA), we would like to speak to you about some of the things that you have learned throughout your career. I’m sure you have many lessons for the recently graduated athlete!
So firstly – is it necessary for a professional track and field athlete to have an agent?
The current state of our sport makes it hard to get races and negotiate fees without an agent. It is not mandatory – but without an agent you would have to contact the meets personally to ask for a lane and negotiate your appearance fees. If you are not well versed in business, this could be complicated. Additionally, meet promoters can choose to, or not to, do business with you and may side with agents in wanting to keep a short list of professionals they are dealing with as opposed to each athlete individually. Choosing a family member has become popular, but family members run into the same problem as athlete when negotiating. Additionally, your family member may place more value on you than a meet promoter does. If he/she gets too pushy, this might cause you to be shut out as well. Also – it is critically important that you realize that your agent works for YOU – not the other way around.
What is the difference between a race agent and a commercial agent?
Track agents will handle shoe contracts, race schedules, appearance fees for races and collection of prize money. They usually will handle negotiation for any request for appearance or sponsorship that are pitched to them by a company with interest in you but will not go out and actively seek sponsorship opportunities other than shoe contracts. Agents mostly eat what they kill which is taking 15-20% of whatever deal they are involved in. It should be noted that they usually also take of prize money at races and 15-20% of world championship money though there is no negotiation required on their part.
Commercial agents build a platform specific to you and pitch it to companies where you may fit well. They are focused on building your ‘brand’, and gaining media familiarity so that you are widely known and sought after for sponsorship opportunities
Are there agents that do both?
I think Bolt’s agent (Ricky Simms) does, but I can’t name another – there may be one or 2 others, but not many agents in track and field do both.
Should athletes have both?
Yes – if an athlete is interested in building a recognizable brand larger than the sport they compete in. You should also realize that commercial agents usually request a monthly retainer in addition to taking a percent of what they secure for you. Sometimes it will take a while for deals to come in and you may pay a commercial agent for months before you start to see income coming in.
When athletes are looking for an agent, what types of things should they be thinking about?
• How many athletes does the agent have in total: How much energy will the agent have to put towards your career?
• How many in my specific event group: If there are already multiple athletes in your event, chances are you may get passed over for many lanes – as the agent will already have established relationships with his current stable.
• What the level of their athletes is: If you go with an agent who is representing a bunch of big-names, you could get lost in the shuffle; whereas, if you find an agent with a bunch of other athletes around your same level, chances are that agent will work harder for you.
• Besides choosing your coach, partnering with the right agent is the most important decision you can make. Take your time – and do your research. many athletes will jump at the first contact an agent makes. However, if this first contact was from the wrong agent, then this could lead down the wrong road. Be patient – talk to as many as you can. Speak to as many professional athletes as you can that are competing at your level. Let them help direct this decision!
What are the typical contract terms?
A one-year deal automatically renewing into the next year if you don’t cancel or say otherwise. Beware of signing multi-year contracts – at least initially, before you have established a strong relationship with the agent. There should be a feeling-out period for both parties.
“Besides choosing your coach, partnering with the right agent is the most important decision you can make. Take your time – and do your research.”
As the majority of meets are in Europe, is it best to sign with a US-based or a Europe-based agent?
This is based on personal preference – there are good agents State-side and in Europe. Think about being able to reach your agent when there is a time difference. Usually US agents are in Europe the majority of summer so it’s not a big deal. Often, European agents have closer ties with European meet directors – so if you’re not a super-star, and are thinking about running some smaller meets, then it is often better to go with a European-based agent.
What are the main ways that a track & field athlete can make a living?
Currently the main source of income is a sponsorship contract from a shoe company. There are bonuses and incentives inside that contract that could pay extra on top of the base amount. At races you might be offered an appearance fee based on your resume and then at the various meets there is prize money based on placing. It should be noted that not all races pay all 8 lanes, however!
What can athletes do to better market themselves?
In addition to sponsorship and prize money American athletes can apply for possibly grant support from the USATF Foundation. There is also a new initiative called AthleteBiz, which empowers our athletes to define their brand, tell their story, market themselves, and unleash their entrepreneurial potential. Social media is now the obvious way to promote your brand: remember that your career as an athlete is very short – you have to make the most of it while you can!
In North America, athletes and coaches hear a lot about the Diamond League races, and that’s it. It should be noted that there are races throughout Europe lost every day – many of them exceptional competitions, with great fields and crowd-support. It is in these meets that younger athletes will ply their trade, and learn the ropes of international competition. It is for this reason that it is important to have an agent that knows the smaller meets, and has relationships with the smaller meet promoters.
We all know athletes who spend all summer in Europe, and actually make a pretty decent living bouncing from one competition to the next: exactly how much can young athletes expect to earn from these non-Diamond League events?
Typical payout varies based on event and caliber of athlete but I would say $2,000 for winning is average for a non DL meet, then working down from there, with places 4-8 paying between 200 euros and nothing.
Lauryn, we’ve also opened the floor to our followers on Twitter – so firstly a question the from @Wade01 who has asked you to talk about the way agents, coaches, training groups and pro track athletes are paid.
It is hard sometimes for athletes to balance the role reversal that takes place when going from college to professional. As a pro, your coach is now paid by you and is a member of your staff. You are no longer a member of their team – it is important to discuss how this will work and how to have your own voice while trusting your coach to create a successful program for you.
Selecting your first professional coach is the single most important decision you will make as an athlete. Do your due diligence. Talk to prospective coaches a lot. Ask them intelligent questions – about everything. Not only their training. Do they have any history working with athletes who have doped? If so – be wary. Speak to the coaches’ former athletes – or even current ones, if you can. If possible, visit the coach – and the training group – at practice. Watch the athletes – are they technically sound? Are many of them injured, or does the coach have a history of injured athletes in the group? The training environment is EVERYTHING! If everyone seems like they are enjoying themselves, having fun, and working hard, then this will help inform your decision. If possible, spend some time with one or more of the athletes in the group – ask if you can go out for a coffee or a tea. Remember – this decision should NOT be rushed into!
“Selecting your first professional coach is the single most important decision you will make as an athlete. Do your due diligence. Talk to prospective coaches a lot. Ask them intelligent questions – about everything.”
Now from @beastNdaBlocks who asks: How were you able to handle the mental hurdles? (I.e. injuries, bad championship performances)
The hardest thing is getting back up when you have been knocked down. Whether race rhythm is off, injury or unexplainable crappy runs, it sucks to be in a slump. The best first step is to reassess your plan. What might you being doing wrong? The biggest mistake we make is looking for someone or something to blame. Your performance is your responsibility and your thoughts become your actions. My rule is 24hr pity-party – then move on to trying to fix the problem. Positive energy is the weapon against negative energy.
Thirdly – a question from @Jroz_the_motto who asks: What is the time commitment, and how do you put yourself on the map?
The biggest thing is knowing how to properly manage your time. During college you have no choice but to balance class, track and socializing – among other things. If you plan to pursue track in a post-collegiate setting you probably did a good job at juggling all these balls. Now as a pro you are responsible for showing up to practice and that is all. It is easy to use your free time to get fat eating out more and finding trouble to get into to fill the time. I would suggest finding a productive hobby or community activity to volunteer in.
Also – ditch the sense of entitlement. You have enough time to handle your own business, so don’t say ‘I have people who do this or that, so that all I have to do is focus on training’. You will find that making sure your ducks are in a row is a full time job but you are more than capable of staying up to date on issues in your sport and new rules and regulations etc: Read something at least 3x a week about the state of the sport.
And our last twitter question comes from @JezMcBackson: How do you deal with the time zone difference in Europe when you go to compete?
Firstly, it is most important that you are taking good care of your sleep and rest environment at home – BEFORE you even begin to travel. Are you watching TV until midnight? Are you playing video games. Is you sleep poor? Ensure that this is all taken care of first! Then, you can begin to strategize as to how you will travel. Begin adjusting your sleep patterns a few days before traveling helps – as does frequent walking and drinking on the plane during the flight. Make sure you get a light shake-out done when you arrive – this can be done at the hotel, or in the parking lot – just make sure it gets done!
Lauryn, thanks for your time – some informed and honest advice for all athletes!
Photo credits: www.lauryn-williams.com