Updated: Apr 16, 2019
Whether we like it or not, our sport is evolving.
Runners are getting faster.
Standards are becoming harder.
All of those aspects influence the direction of American track and field.
Yet, maybe one of the more interesting facets of this sport-altering era is the relationship we've seen between young stars and shoe companies, specifically Adidas. However, before we can completely understand that dynamic, we need to rewind to 2001...
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Around this time nearly 18 years ago, Alan Webb was rapidly becoming one of the biggest and best stars in American distance running. His 3:53 high school mile national record had garnered mass amounts of attention from people across the country as well as the world. Webb's performance even landed him a spot on the Late Night with David Letterman show. For many people, it felt like the running community finally had a celebrity to rally around.
Despite the persuasion attempts for Webb to sign a pro contract, the young superstar would eventually enroll at Michigan to train under Coach Ron Warhurst. However, a pair of All-American finishes in his first year weren't enough to keep Webb interested in staying at Ann Arbor. Instead, he would sign a lucrative six year, $1.5 million contract from Nike.
Webb's professional contract was entirely out of the norm for the time. It was rare to see young talents leave the NCAA so early to pursue opportunities out of the collegiate system. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who signed with Adidas in 2003 at 18 years old, was one of the rare exceptions. Still, the lack of these early-career contracts over the next decade stemmed from the fact that there was simply less money in the sport back then than there is now and that the country didn't see athletes who were at the same level as Webb or Felix were.
At the time, Webb's contract felt like a potential catalyst for other young superstars. Was this going to be the start of high schoolers forgoing eligibility to sign shoe contracts? The answer to that would be no.
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Once Webb made his decision to sign on the dotted line in 2002, collegiate underclassmen and high school stars from across the country were simply unable to reach the same level of fame and aerobic mastery. The bar, after all, was set incredibly high.
However, that all changed in 2013 when a 17 year old girl from Bronxville, New York began torching record books and dominating her competition. I am, of course, referring to Mary Cain.
The rise of the internet and social media amplified Cain's image in ways that Webb was never able to accomplish. Fans throughout the running community were able to watch Cain run on a consistent basis thanks to advancements made in streaming. She was the face of every interview while her name was being printed on every running headline. In a time where the mass movement of information and digital media were beginning to gain momentum, Cain's exposure became just as valuable as her performances.
Unlike Webb, there was little doubt that Cain would sign on the dotted line of a professional contract. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. In 2013, before she even graduated from high school, Mary Cain officially joined Nike Oregon Project, the nation's premier distance running group.
But what was so different about this signing is that she wasn't the only young star to get a deal with a shoe company. In fact, she wasn't even the first high schooler to sign a pro contract in 2013. Instead, that honor went to Ajee Wilson who signed with Adidas.
The idea of two high school athletes (much less one) signing pro contracts before they even donned a college singlet was still an incredibly foreign concept. However, it was those contract negotiations that ended up sparking an arms race to sign the country's most electric young talents on the track.
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Over the next five years, numerous high school stars and elite underclassmen would opt out of the NCAA to pursue careers as professional athletes. Nike would go on to sign a pair of phenoms in Donovan Brazier and Alexa Efraimson. ASICS inked a deal with 16 year old sprinter Candace Hill, making her the youngest athlete in United States history to sign a professional track and field contract. Of course, we can't forget about Sydney McLaughlin, the 2016 Olympian who became a sprinting and hurdle prodigy while wielding an unfathomable number of young fans. After a year at Kentucky, McLaughlin would secure a likely massive deal and sign with New Balance.
But Adidas? They were the biggest winners.
In addition to Ajee Wilson, the Three Stripe brand would add a dynamic mix of youth to their pro athlete roster. The first signings were for the sprinting brother duo of Noah and Josephus Lyles. Although Josephus has battled injuries, Noah has become America's next greatest sprinting star with the potential to threaten the Jamaicans for Olympic gold in 2020.
While Nike was able to boast the signing of middle distance superstar, collegiate record holder, and national champion Donovan Brazier, Adidas patiently waited to counter. Just two years after Brazier broke the collegiate 800 meter record, UTEP's Michael Saruni one-upped him with a new collegiate record of his own (1:43.25) along with a national title. That was enough to capture the interest of Adidas representatives and sign him to a deal.
And the most recent results? They favor Adidas...
As if that wasn't enough, Adidas recently signed Sammy Watson, the Texas A&M ace who won the 2018 NCAA outdoor national title in the 800 meters as a freshman. She has been compared to Ajee Wilson on multiple occasions.
Yet, maybe the most important and most impactful signing of them all was Drew Hunter, the greatest high school boys distance runner since Alan Webb. Despite having a high school mile PR slower than Webb's, Hunter was arguably just as talented with a Footlocker national title in cross country as well as a 7:59 personal best for 3000 meters on a flat track. He even owns a 1:48 PR for 800 meters.
Simply put, the kid does it all.
But what Hunter has done in his pro career has been just as impressive. And sure, we could focus on his 3:35.90 personal best for 1500 meters or his USA Championship 2 Mile victory from the "slow" heat, but what he has helped create within his training group is uniquely special and arguably more important. I mean, who hasn't heard of Tinman Elite?
The pro group has quickly become one of the most admired and most talented pro teams in the country. What first began as just a few guys training in the mountains has evolved into something so much more, with unsponsored runners from across the United States flooding into Boulder, Colorado to improve their fitness and pursue their pro contract dreams.
And Adidas? They've taken notice.
While the group may not be fully funded, Adidas has found ways to get involved by providing gear and apparel for the team to use and sell to their rabid loyal fans, aka Tin Mob.
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One thing is clear. Adidas is using the youth and fandom surrounding star high school runners and collegiate underclassmen to improve sales and frankly, it's a brilliant business strategy. The generation that has been able to capitalize on their social media presence means greater exposure for a brand that has thrived off of millennial influencers like Kanye West.
It's impossible to say for sure whether or not these signings having any direct influence on sales for Adidas products, but we would be crazy to ignore the clear growth the company has seen in their running division over the past few years.
Is a portion of that driven by new products like the Ultraboost and Yeezy's?
Could some of it be powered by marketing the nation's top talents?
But what Adidas has offered to their signees is more than just large-sums of money and the support of a corporation. The real value comes with signing the contract itself, which allows athletes something that most major sports fail to offer: an alternative.
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Earlier this summer, Andy and Maurica Powell left the University of Oregon to take new coaching positions at Washington. As a result, the Ducks roster saw noticeable turnover and the introduction of new coaches. This put 800 meter high school national record holder Josh Hoey, along with his older brother Jaxson, in a predicament.
Jaxson had already spent one year in Eugene after transferring from Penn State while Josh was required to earn a release from his National Letter of Intent. So instead of transferring or staying in a less than ideal situation at Oregon, the Hoey brothers took a non-traditional approach.
They signed a contract with Adidas.
Obviously, Adidas contracts aren't just given out to anyone who is interested in going pro. However, the ability to turn pro at any time in your high school or college career has provided these young athletes with the flexibility that many athletes in other sports never have. The NFL requires that athletes are three years removed from high school upon declaring for the draft. The NBA currently requires a one year gap.
There will never be enough money to support every elite runner who wants to turn pro, but Adidas has begun to lay the groundwork for a more competitive contract market between shoe companies which could offer more opportunities and the potential for some athletes to bypass the NCAA entirely. The mass influx of signings over the past five to six years are proof that it could happen.
As absurd as it may sound, Adidas could end up revolutionizing our sport as we know it.