The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games are still more than a year away, but many athletes are already well into their preparation.
The hard work doesn’t start and stop with the physical training, but also the logistics and financial aspects of being an Olympic athlete. A majority of athletes’ annual salaries aren’t in the millions, so to provide their freedom to be elite athletes, they have to take on extra responsibilities.
Reigning BMX Gold Medalist Connor Fields is preparing for what would be his third Olympic Games, which includes a fine balancing act between training responsibilities and sponsorship responsibilities.
“The older you get, the more natural it becomes,” Fields said about the business side of his nine-year BMX career. “When I first started, I was 18 and living at home with no bills. Everything was for the love of the sport. Now, life is expensive. I have to make decisions based on what helps me financially and career-wise.”
“It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to lose the passion,” he added. “But at the end of the day, I have a mortgage due every month.”
For a solo athlete like Fields, financials can be tricky. In some sports, like men’s basketball, year-round earning for Olympians is a given. Some other sports, like skiing, can offer athletes handsome earnings year-round even in non-Olympic years. Sports like BMX can support elite participants, but not much beyond those few. Still, some sports offer almost zero earning potential beyond the Olympic cycles.
“For some sports, the Olympics really is the holy grail,” Fields said. “There is an opportunity in BMX, but it’s very feast or famine.”
Fields has two full-time sponsorships: Chase BMX and Monster Energy.
More sponsors will come as the Olympics draw nearer, especially those who sponsor the general USA Olympic team. Over the last cycle, Fields was sponsored by Polo Ralph Lauren, one of the team’s major sponsors. Other major sponsors, like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, come in and can sponsor individual athletes too.
“The marquee athletes get first bite at the apple,” he said.
His first Olympics in 2012 didn’t bring any sponsorship interest. Unless an athlete is already world-class heading into their first Olympics, sponsorships are virtually non-existent, he said. Prior to 2016, he saw more as he finished seventh in London.
Now, as a gold medalist, he should see a significant surge.
“Coming into this next one, I’m an Olympic champion,” Fields said. “A sponsor can say they’re attached to an Olympic champion.”
Now with his main BMX sponsors and eventually with the Olympic cycle sponsors, Fields has to balance time commitments. Training five or six days a week for his races is mixed in with photo shoots and corporate meet-and-greets. It’s all about working with the sponsors to ensure it doesn’t take too much time away from the training. An athlete also has to be careful to not take on too many sponsors to ensure all parties are happy.
“They want you because you’re successful, and if you do too much, it backfires,” Fields said.
The Olympic media cycle will begin later this year, in terms of sponsorship media commitments for the Olympics, Fields said. Athletes expected to make the Olympics can sign sponsorships with clauses that pay a portion up front and then tender the rest of the money if they make the team — since some aren’t decided until even a month prior to the games.
“It’s tough for sponsors, because they have to look at past Olympic results, but also current efforts,” Fields said. “They’re investing in an athlete and creating a story around them.”
Along with performance, Fields said sponsors are more interested in athletes with a story hook.
Fields hasn’t made Team USA yet, but in his third cycle, he’s not too nervous about the process.
“I’ve done it twice before and I know exactly what to expect so it seems easier and I’m less nervous,” Fields said. “It’s more like a job now after nine years.”