When Kevin Garnett, now an NBA superstar, went pro straight from his Chicago high school in 1995, it flung open the floodgates -- not that they were tightly shut -- for high school seniors and college freshmen to forgo more education and opt for the pros.
It isn’t quite the NBA -- both the athletes and the checks tend to be slimmer -- but more and more track and field athletes are going pro long before they cross the stage and pick up a diploma. Unlike pros in the big three sports of football, basketball and baseball, however, both men and women are running and jumping to the pros, and many of them are staying enrolled in college while competing professionally.
In 2001, Alan Webb transcended the normal stardom of track athletes, usually reserved for a cult following in the United States, when he ran 3:53 in the mile and broke now-U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old American high-school mile record.
Webb put off the lure of endorsements to attend the University of Michigan. But, after a disappointing freshman year, he signed with Nike in 2002, forfeiting his remaining college eligibility. (NCAA rules bar athletes from competing in college once they've turned professional or otherwise been paid because of their sports skills.) Nike, along with other companies, would not comment on specific contracts, but multiple sources said Webb signed for around $250,000 a year for six years, plus incentive bonuses, and some money for his personal coach. Nike threw in full tuition, too. Swoosh!
Because there are no traditional league schedules or teams, some athletes choose to stay in college, both to work toward a degree and because runners tend to be fanatical about maintaining the training environment and coaches who have bred their success.
Webb transferred to George Mason University, where he is still enrolled as an economics major. When Webb hung up Michigan's maize and blue for the lure of green, the phenomenon was still uncommon in track. Now the question at the end of each season is not whether an underclassman will go pro, but which ones.
The whole topic of track athletes turning pro, for many people, elicits the question: “Track athletes can go pro?” The jockeying for top talent is not among professional teams, but among shoe companies looking to sponsor the athlete. And the jockeying has intensified, according to coaches and sports agents, in the last five years.
“A decade ago, for an athlete of extreme talent in our sport, going pro early wasn’t even something they’d consider,” said Dennis Shaver, head track and field coach at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. He added that the financial incentives of a corporate sponsor paled in comparison to a college scholarship and degree at the time.
Shaver coached D’Andre Hill, a sprinter who went to the 1996 Olympics the summer after her senior year, “and the best deal she could get was $10,000 and some shoes,” Shaver said. He said that if he had an underclassman with Hill’s talent now, the money “would be too good” to pass up. Shaver said that top women can get $150,000-200,000 in salary, plus performance bonuses.
At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, for example, where the women’s basketball team is perhaps the best known in its sport in the country, none of the players have ever gone pro early, whereas two Tennessee female track and field athletes have gone early in the last two years. Both stayed in college. “They’re not signing LeBron James type deals,” said J.J. Clark, Tennessee's women’s track coach, and the coach of five Olympians, including his wife and two sisters. “Education is still very important.” Clark, like some of the other coaches, continues to coach his sponsored athletes, pro bono.
Shaver saw his “too good to pass up” theory in action recently. LSU’s Xavier Carter, fresh off becoming the first runner to win the both the 100 and 400 meter races at the NCAA championship, announced in June that he was ready to get back to LSU’s vaunted football team. Carter was tagged as perhaps the second recent LSU track national champion with NFL potential. Ex-LSU athlete Bennie Brazell, Carter’s friend and a 2004 Olympian, was drafted this year by the Cincinnati Bengals.
On June 21, Carter announced that he would be going pro -- in track, not football. Carter’s announcement was one of at least five by athletes in June who have not graduated. Carter is an uncommon talent, and coaches and agents suggested that he would get a deal far more lucrative than his peers. Carter reportedly turned down seven figure deals out of high school. Though Carter had declared his intention to return to football, Shaver said that Carter and his family “had a figure in mind. Once they got that figure from a shoe company, it was very hard for the family to turn down.” It has become standard for contracts to include college tuition, if the athlete wants it, and Carter will remain at LSU under Shaver, and will attend class and practice just as he did before.
Coaches and agents suggested several causes for the meteoric rise in sponsorship money. One factor could be a rise in track and field participation of several percent a year in recent years. Outdoor track and field, with nearly one million high school participants, is now the second most popular sport for girls -- behind basketball -- and the third most popular for boys, behind football and basketball, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Companies hope that that will translate into a widening consumer base.
Part of the money spiral is shoe companies' beginning to compete against one another, as they have done in basketball, to secure young talent. Consequently, “they’re paying money on potential,” said John Nubani, president of Sports Management and Marketing Inc . “We’ve yet to see these people perform at a World Championships or at an Olympics. These 19- or 20-year-old kids are getting six-figure deals per year over five or six years.”
In 2005, Nike, according to several track coaches and agents, was smarting from having lost Jeremy Wariner, a runner from Baylor University who went pro and won the Olympic gold in the 400 meters after his sophomore year, to rival Adidas. Nike -- which was founded by an ex-runner and coach from the University of Oregon -- went after LaShawn Merritt, then a freshman at East Carolina University, hoping to land a Wariner-slayer.
Merritt ran the second fastest indoor 400 ever in the fall of his freshman year, and, to the surprise of East Carolina coach Bill Carson, went pro that same week. “He called me to his room and said, ‘I turned pro,’ ” Carson recalled. “I just about died.”
Merritt ended up leaving college, and Carson said “it’s not worked out real well for him to this point.” (Merritt, though, did take second at the U.S. Nationals this month). Carson said Merritt signed for something in the neighborhood of $2 million over four years. Carson, like other coaches, said that shoe companies often circumvent the college coach, and go straight to the family or even a high school coach. College coaches are now aware of that, and are beginning to advise athletes about their options even before a company comes calling. Some said they might advise an athlete to hold out, because a big performance could drive their market value way up over night.
Carson added that he thinks some of the bidding wars have moved to college because other talent-breeding grounds are disappearing. Carson said that developmental European track meets are disappearing, and that, because of the NCAA’s new Academic Progress Rate -- which started in 2004 and penalizes teams for poor academic performance -- “very few marginal kids are going off to college,” he said. A bad APR rating can cost a team a scholarship. “A lot of coaches aren’t taking chances,” Carson said.
The pot of gold at the end of the track isn’t as large for distance runners -- East Africans generally dominate the world distance scene -- as it is for sprinters, where Americans are the premier power.
Fewer distance runners than sprinters are leaving college for the pros, and those who leave are generally looking at payoffs of tens of thousands to $100,000 per year, and incentives, according to coaches and agents, with the rare Webb among them.
Running endorsements happen to be one area where everyone agrees that American students do better than foreigners. “The skew on payment is dramatic compared to what you’d give a foreign runner,” Nubani said. “It’s a lot easier for an American teenager to relate to an Alan Webb, for example, than a Kenyan superstar,” even though Kenyan distance superstars, a few of whom attend American colleges, are much more plentiful.
“As agents who represent foreign athletes like myself,” Nubani said, “we get a little disturbed that we’re not able to get the same kind of money for an athlete that we know will be very successful who is foreign.”
Several coaches and agents said that increasing exposure, via television and the Internet, may make some headway toward endearing foreign athletes to American fans, particularly those that run at American colleges, but that the imbalance will likely persist.
What track coaches agree on is that they shouldn’t count on the four-year training plan for top talent anymore. Clark noted that only a very small number of athletes, far fewer than in the revenue sports, have the pro option, and he expects the trend to “calm down” soon. The downside, Clark added, is “just basically giving up your youth.”
Trainer said that Tianna Madison, Tennessee long-jumper, had to choose between $60,000 in prize money from winning the World Championships in 2005, and retaining her amateur status. Madison opted for the money and then signed with Nike. She agonized over the decision to go pro for six months, but decided that since she could stay in school, "nothing would change except the size of my scholarship check."
Some things did change, though. Madison said she can lose over a week of class when she travels to international meets. "You can almost chalk your semester up as a failure," she said. Madison, a social work student, had a 3.88 GPA last semester, but said that "it almost killed me. You have to be disciplined, because the motivation to go to class might not be as high, and my training suffered."
The biggest change, she found, was with her relationship to her teammates. "You're with them, but you're not one of them," she said. "That was hard for me, those were my girls, we did everything together." The loneliness of the long jumper set in. "It kind of got to the point where I was in my own little box." Madison transferred and will begin studies at California State University at Los Angeles in the fall, where she will train exclusively with professionals.
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