Chrissie Wellington on ELITE LEVEL SPORT: SUPPORT, FUNDING, BRANDING AND MEDIA COVERAGE
Chrissie has been invited to be part of an All Party Parliamentary group on women in sport. She spoke at the House of Commons last month, and as part of this she has written a few papers on issues pertaining to women and grassroots and elite sport. Here is her take on Elite Level Sport: Funding, Branding, and Media Coverage...
To fulfill your potential being an elite athlete should be viewed as a 24/7 job.
Rest and recovery, nutrition, medical care, and sleep are just as important as time spent completing physical training sessions. But to fund this lifestyle some athletes are left with little choice but to undertake paid employment, which can detrimentally impact upon the ability to focus on all aspects of training mentioned above.
Many athletes therefore require independent financial support in order to be able to devote themselves to their chosen sport, sustain this 'lifestyle and career choice, and perform at their best over the long term. Being a professional athlete is not only about winning races, to me it also means making the sport your career, as well as behaving in a responsible and 'professional' manner.
In February 2007 I left my job as a civil servant and chose to become a full time athlete. Ironman distance triathlon is not an Olympic sport and therefore I (and other long distance triathletes) do not receive any funding from the governing body, British Triathlon, or from UK Sport. Despite winning the World Championships at the amateur level, as a new professional athlete (with no track record of success in the professional ranks) attracting salaried, commercial sponsorship was incredibly difficult. Companies are seemingly quite risk averse and focus investment on sports/athletes with a proven track record of global/national success.
I was fortunate to be able to join a triathlon team (TeamTBB) which provided me with free coaching. I had enough savings to sustain me for a year, and also received some free product from the commercial sponsors that invested in the Team, as well as a UK based running shop. My main expenses were on accommodation, travel, food, equipment, race entry fees and medical care. My coach and I were aware that I would need to win enough prize money and/or secure commercial sponsors within twelve months in order to be able to continue to train/race full time beyond the end of 2007.
I was fortunate to see a rapid rate of progression in my ability and performance, and hence became competitive on the world stage in my first year. Within a few months I was earned a small income from race prize money and financial bonuses from the Team's sponsors for these performances. I managed to win the World Ironman Championships in my first year as a full time athlete, and it was after that victory that It was only after my first World Championship victory that I started working individually with a sports agent/manager. With his help, I was able to obtain commercial sponsorship (mainly from US based sports related companies) and begin to attract fees for appearances at races and public speaking engagements.
Without global success it would have been incredibly difficult to secure that commercial sponsorship, but sporting success on its own isn't enough for an athlete to maximise his/her earning potential. My sponsors rightly place value not only on competition victories but also the interaction/impact the elite athlete has at the grassroots level, their personality, ethos, and willingness to devote time and energy to being an effective ambassador for the company.
Athletes must therefore see themselves as commercial entities and (without needing to be phoney/fake) cultivate their own personal 'brand' in order to attract and sustain relationships with sponsors. The importance of capable sports managers/agents in negotiating commercial contracts, and facilitating effective athlete marketing, cannot be overemphasised. The same goes for PR training for the athletes, in order that they can best represent their sponsors and their chosen sport.
From my experience, there is genuine commercial value for sponsors in working relatively 'uncluttered' market of women's sports, especially those with a developed grassroots structure and club network (which provides further market exposure for the sponsor). I would urge any companies looking for endorsement partnerships to consider working with female sports teams or athletes, especially given the possibility of (and need for) growth of participation in physical activity amongst
women, and the fact that women's choices often dictate family spending.
The motivation of state investment into elite sport is obviously very different to that of commercial sponsors. Rather than product recognition, the generation of positive product/company image and sales revenue, global sporting success by GBR athletes (and specifically at the Olympics and Paralympics) is the ultimate goal of Lottery funding. Hopefully we will reap the benefits of record investment at the London Olympics and Paralympics. It will be important that a post Games analysis is undertaken to ascertain whether there has indeed a correlation between investment and success, bearing in mind the need for a long term perspective for the results of such investment to materialise.
In my view, state support should be channelled, in part, to development athletes to provide them with the seed funding to enable them to train full time, access support serves and facilities, and hence improve so that they can be competitive on the national global stage. Means testing is also important to ensure athletes with lucrative commercial partnerships don't receive government funding which could be better spent on development athletes. I would also suggest that such funding is also channelled to those athletes who may not be participating in an Olympic sport, but who are (striving to be) competitive at the global level.
And to emphasise, assistance must be holistic; that is, not only in terms of a salary but also access to coaching, facilities, equipment, medical and psychological care. It will also be important that athletes are provided with ongoing support to enable them, upon retirement, to make a smooth transition (emotionally and practically) to another career.
I would also encourage British Universities to examine the US 'scholarship' system which is a key development and talent-nurturing path for many of their elite athletes (with gender equity assisted by the implementation to the TITLE IX legislation). The system is used by only a small number of universities over here and I feel it can be a way of providing a springboard into elite level sport for some gifted athletes.
Elite VS Grassroots Sport
It does not have to be an either/or in terms of investment, but obviously in tough economic times, difficult choices do need to be made regarding state investment for the greater good of all.
I believe that elite level sport has value, in terms of fostering national pride, creating positive role models, providing entertainment, creating 'trickle down' economic benefits as well as (in some cases) indirectly promoting growth of mass participation. However, government investment in this area should not replace support for local/national activities and programmes that drive participation at the grassroots level, as well as parallel spending on sport through the Departments of Health and Education and Culture, Media and Sport. We cannot, and should not, simply rely on our amazing nation of volunteers and philanthropic organisations to drive sporting participation at the grassroots level. It is amongst the masses that the biggest social and economic gains can be made for the country at large. And of course, the reality is that our elite sport system only prospers when we have a strong talent base on which to draw.
The media profile of women's sport
My views on the lack of coverage of women's sport, so called 'minority sport 'and parathletes have been well documented. I have been happy to see an improvement in this regard over the past year (especially in the Olympics related coverage), but there is still room for improvement.
This low coverage has three specific ramifications;
It makes it much harder for sports and individuals to attract commercial partners for whom coverage and public exposure are important
It constrains the ability of individual athletes to develop their own personal 'brand' and utilise the platform (eg being a patron for charities) that having a media/public profile can bring.
It also reduces the ability of an elite athlete to be an effective role model for others, and hence inspire participation at the grassroots level.
I believe that elite athletes can help inspire grassroots participation, but the nature of this causative 'trickle down' effect does need more careful analysis. The issue is that athletes are deemed by some to be bionic super-humans, who are inaccessible to the everyday person. Elite athletes must therefore be embedded in systematic and ongoing local programmes of promotion, mentoring and support including the involvement of parents, teachers and significant adults - as well being effectively and appropriately represented in the media at all levels - if they are to be effective role models.
I know that that the solution is not as simple as asking for more coverage and expecting the media to provide it. It is a complex situation that requires the media, governing bodies, athletes and the general public to all work together to ensure progress is made.
Whilst not exhaustive, I believe that the following actions could be taken;
By the media
The mainstream media could be much more proactive in widening their coverage of different sports, as well as both able bodied and para-athletes. With increased coverage comes increased public awareness, stimulating demand for further coverage and hopefully increasing mass participation. The Olympics and Paralympics will help in this regard, although we need to ensure that this momentum is carried through in the years ahead rather than slipping back into the status quo.
Coverage of one-off matches and events are great, but it takes regular and frequent broadcasts of the same sport to build audience awareness, recognition and interest
We should strive for greater equality in sports journalism employment (especially at leadership levels), including women and those of various ethnic backgrounds.
By national governing bodies (NGBs)
With the pressure on journalists (especially online) to fill copy and do so swiftly, NGBs should help facilitate this: encouraging attendance of the media (including providing VIP event access, and hospitality), detailed releases, information and readily accessible imagery.
NGBs could 'sell/package' their sports more effectively, so as to make it easy for broadcasters to cover and to ensure they appeal to the general public. For example, not that many people would choose to watch a 9hour ironman race, but packaged into an exciting 30min programme it would be more appealing to the broadcaster and the general public.
Athletes should receive strong and effective PR/media training from their NGB to ensure they can effectively represent their sport.
UK Sport, NGBs and event organisers should continue/enhance efforts to bring and hold high quality sporting events the UK which will further attract media and public interest.
Professional athletes should think of themselves as a brand. It's my view that they should effectively and (pro)actively engage with the media, including using social media so as to encourage coverage of, and interest in, their sports. Managing their time to take account of these additional pressures and obligations, without negatively impacting upon their performance, is (in part) what being a true professional is all about.
I would suggest that athletes in receipt of government funding could be required to take part in grassroots role model programmes as a condition of their funding contract, without impacting on their ability to perform
Athletes should ensure their agents/managers source suitable media opportunities, as well as enabling the athlete to manage their time effectively and prioritise their performance.
By the general public
The general public should 'vote with their feet' and attend women only and co-ed sporting events that may not be considered mainstream, and also read, watch or listen to coverage of the less mainstream sport. It is also important for them to blog, tweet and respond to on-line articles to demonstrate that the interest is out there for less mainstream sports
Local sports clubs and teams should be encouraged to develop relationships with, and feed information to, local media. They should also use new communication channels, including websites, Twitter, Facebook etc.
Sponsor contracts could incentivise athletes (ag with bonuses) for media coverage, and hence encourage them to be proactive in this area (without detracting from their ability to perform).
Sponsors could look beyond the traditional 'majority' sports, and see the commercial value in investing in 'minority sports' as well as women in different sports. To use the example of triathlon once more, it may be a minority sport in terms of coverage, but not in terms of grassroots participation and active, passionate club membership dominated by people with a relatively high disposable income. The thousands of amateur athletes provide a potential, and largely untapped, market for many non-endemic companies. The sponsors should also use female athletes in (appropriate) marketing campaigns, and hence enable them to develop their brand/profile.
Follow chrissie on Twitter @chrissiesmiles
See Chrissie's blogs on women's sport and fitness here.