Colleen Quigley: Agent of Change

By: Sarah Derrick

In early February Colleen Quigley stunned the running world when she announced her departure from Bowerman Track Club. Today, Quigley announced that her new sponsor would be Lululemon. Over the last three months, there has been speculation as to whom she would choose to go with even from The Harrier’s very own Patrick Larson, proposing who it could possibly be. In Larson’s earlier article there was one thing made for certain: whatever Quigley chose to do would have an impact on the running world. I am here to explain about how the choice of Lululemon as a sponsor, or rather a partner, is going to help change the mold of sponsor-athlete relationships for the better thanks to this move by Quigley.

In the world of running, sponsorships between brand and athletes have traditionally been the main source of income for the professionals. And often, what those relationships demand of the athletes are not always the most sustainable for one’s body or for building a life of stability. In the professional running world, the athlete’s body, mind, and life are all controlled by the bleak reality that winning equates to value in the eyes of the contract they signed. Depending on what kind of runner you were in college and what kind of results you are putting out now, ultimately determines the compensation one gets as a professional. And, if you look at the estimates of salary, lack of 401Ks, and even lack of health insurance/ the removal of health insurance due to injury and potentially even pregnancy – the compensation from a major shoe brand is only so helpful in building a life.

The most famous display of this in recent years comes from Nike Oregon Project and Mary Cain. Though, Cain’s specific reasoning for departure is not necessarily the case for others who’ve decided to leave programs sponsored by a major running shoe company; there are others who’ve made decisions to find different deals like Alexis Pappas and Aisha Praught Leer to ensure the same thing Cain sought after: a brand who understands the pursuit of holistic life while running fast. While Quigley’s choice to go with Lululemon could be seen as just with a trend of a changing world, her deal much like her bff’s Pappas’s deal with Champion, needs to be recognized as to how it is giving back power to the athlete. And it all comes down to a word: partnership.

In the professional athlete-brand relationship, the brand –or the sponsor– is the one who holds all the power. They are the ones with the resources, with the following, and with name recognition that can be used to proposition an athlete in contract bargaining. However, what happens when an athlete realizes that they could have other, more sustainable sponsorships for income that are not solely based off of performance? What if they have their own following becomes so big that, their social media presence is just as important fact in a contract as their fast running? What if the athlete wants to do more for the world than great performances? Does the traditional athlete-brand relationship, where the brand holds all the power really work?

Quigley’s move to go with Lululemon is showing that there can be so much more out there for professional athletes. It shows that as an athlete, you can and dare I say should retain power in how you are compensated for what you do on the track, but also off the track. It shows the way of pursuing a life as a professional runner can be much more than hard hitting days on the track, but also the social justice initiatives you believe in too. Quigley has been able to show us that being a professional can be about more than just running fast.

Right after she left BTC and Nike, Quigley ran in a meet against her former teammates. The day after, she made the post above explaining her “why” for running as she put it. The purpose was not about times, performances, or anything like that. Rather, Quigley explained it was about empowerment of girls and women. Her freedom to run for much more than the sake of running fast doesn’t seem like it could fit the model of the sponsorship relationship.

 All of this goes to show that the “traditional” shoe brand sponsorship may no longer be cutting it. Professional runners need partners to come alongside of them who are willing to help establish a sustainable life for the athlete and support the athlete in pursuits for the greater good. Cain, Pappas, Leer, and Quigley are just the start. For the sake of the sport, and for the lives and health of professional runners, my hope is that more companies become like Lululemon, Tracksmith, Puma, and Champion and see the value of these runners as partners, and not just performers.