By Brian Metzler
While behemoth multinational brands like New Balance, Nike, On, ASICS and Puma placed a lot of their sponsored runners, jumpers and throwers on the U.S. Olympic track and field team last month in Eugene, Oregon, it was an up-and-coming start-up that stole the show.
Boston-based Tracksmith, a brand that launched in 2014, not only made a big splash with a series of dramatic TV spots that aired during the broadcast of the U.S. Olympic Trials on NBC, NBC Sports Network and Peacock, but it also had 31 athletes competing across all disciplines in its gear as part of its Amateur Support Program. The icing on the cake? Five of those athletes will be competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
“Frankly we got lucky with five athletes making the Olympics, but when you combine all of the things happening at the same time, it was an amazing eight days for us in terms of brand awareness,” said Matt Taylor, Tracksmith’s founder and CEO during in an interview given prior to the July 13 International Olympic Committee Rule 40 deadline that protects branding opportunities of official Olympic partners.
Tracksmith’s Amateur Support Program is an evolution of the OTQ Program it organized leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta. When it developed that program, the intent was to give otherwise unsponsored athletes who were close to the brand a gear stipend to support their training leading up to the trials marathon. But then it opened the program to anyone who had the qualifying standard, which resulted in about 130 of the 700 or so runners in the men’s and women’s fields wearing Tracksmith racing kits for the men’s and women’s races on Feb. 29 last year. (It’s a similar tactic that Oiselle used prior to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles.)
Last winter, Tracksmith created a modified program for the 2021 track season and extended it to all disciplines of the sport. In all, the brand wound up supporting more than 100 athletes in the Amateur Support Program in the lead-up to the U.S. Olympic Trials with a gear stipend and other schwag, deals and connections from partnering brands like Linden x Two Coffee and Momentous nutritional supplements.
“Originally we were just going to extend the marathon program, and we assumed we’d be focused on the distance runners, given that a lot of marathoners either had or were chasing the 10k standard,” Taylor said. “But we realized that there were athletes across all disciplines that could use a little bit of support that don’t have sponsors. So we made the decision to open it up and, while it started out with mostly distance runners, as the word spread we wound up with jumpers, throwers, multi-eventers and distance runners.”
In Eugene, Tracksmith rented a house a few blocks from Hayward Field that became a de facto hospitality suite with 24-hour concierge service for the ASP athletes, helping them out with everything from rides to and from the airport, a place to hang out and relax, a quick trip to the grocery store, and even physio and massage treatments from therapists it had flown in from Boston.
Tracksmith kits were plentiful throughout the Olympic Trials, especially because 17 of the 31 athletes who were competing at Hayward Field advanced to the finals of their event. By the time the meet concluded on June 27, Mason Ferlic (men’s 3,000m steeplechase), Rudy Winkler (men’s hammer throw), Rachel Dincoff (women’s discus), Kara Winger (women’s javelin) and Val Constien (women’s 3,000m steeplechase) had finished in the top three of their events to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team — and an undisclosed financial bonus from Tracksmith.
Two other athletes in the Tracksmith program, Lucas Bruchet (Canada, 5,000m) and Nick Ponzio (Italy, shot put) will also be competing in Tokyo, as well as Nick Willis (New Zealand, 1,500m), a Tracksmith employee who manages the program. (Willis, 38 is a five-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist in the 1,500m who trains in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)
Willis also advocated on behalf of athletes in the program in regard to getting into competitions, travel assistance, connecting with other brands and navigating numerous other challenges young, up-and-coming athletes face.
“It’s been a lot of fun and really rewarding to be on the other side of the coin to help athletes feel like someone has their back and cares about them, first and foremost, and also is fighting for them to have a chance to be their best,” Willis said. “It’s a wild, wild west out there for those who don’t find their foothold straightaway out of college as post-collegiate athletes. It can be a lonely struggle out there. It takes a lot of figuring out how to navigate that unknown space between leaving a university program and on the way to getting a spot on the start line of a race.”
The Tracksmith TV spots were also a huge hit that created a buzz in the track community during the Olympic Trials. There were three different versions of the ads that depicted runners going through real workouts on the track at White Stadium in Boston’s Franklin Park. There was a group of men that ran a 10 x 400-meter workout in 57 seconds or faster, while the women’s group did 10 x 200 in about 30 seconds. The majority of the athletes featured in the spots were ASP athletes, while a few were from clubs Tracksmith supports.
The idea for the campaign was developed in-house, but the creative guidance was produced by the Farm League content agency and directed by Emily Maye, the primary photographer for Tracksmith since its inception. To top it off, respected journalist, best-selling author and lifelong runner Malcolm Gladwell wrote and narrated the voiceovers for the ads.
“The whole concept was about the last interval, the final workout you’re going to do before you head to the Olympic Trials,” Taylor said. “We just documented each one and it just worked out that the 10th interval wound up being the most dramatic and the most effort showing on their faces. You can’t fake that. It’s hard to watch those and not remember what intervals on the track are all about.”
While Taylor wouldn’t give out financial details, he said the advertisements were a huge success, not only from a branding point of view but also based on a big increase in sales from a spike in online traffic. The ads won’t run during the Olympics because it’s just too expensive, Taylor said, but the brand will continue to use them in other digital media advertising venues throughout the summer.
Taylor said he hopes some of the athletes the brand has supported will eventually be able to earn sponsorship deals with other brands. At least one already has: Hobbs Kessler, the 18-year-old phenom who set a national high school record in the 1,500m (3:34.36), wore Tracksmith gear this spring before signing with Adidas on the eve of the Olympic Trials.
Tracksmith has grown considerably in the past two years, Taylor said, but it’s still small compared to the big brands. It operates primarily as a direct-to-consumer business via online sales, although it does maintain a Boston store and has a handful of wholesale accounts.
“The feedback we got from the Olympic Trials, which really made me happy, was that the athletes felt like they were part of a team,” Taylor said. “It was an amazing week to be there supporting all of those athletes and it made us feel like we were a part of something that was beyond just us.”