Industry

Athletes Speak Out Against Not Getting Paid for Jersey Sales

January 26, 2022 by
Photo Credit: NOBULL (instagram.com/nobull)
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You’re at the CrossFit Games and you walk into the NOBULL store and see your favorite athlete’s name on a replica Games jersey. You purchase one and feel good about representing that athlete thinking you’re supporting them by putting a little extra money in their pocket — except that athlete doesn’t see a single dime from that jersey sale.

What’s Happening?

When an athlete signs up during CrossFit Open registration, they are required to sign a Publicity Release Waiver that gives up their intellectual property, image and likeness for CrossFit to monetize as they see fit, as stated in the CrossFit Games Competition Rulebook. It’s outlined for the 2022 season under Publicity Release “Nature and Scope of Publicity Release” and details every way imaginable CrossFit may want to use your name or likeness for its benefit. 

With that, they license the name of CrossFit Games athletes, in this case to NOBULL, and sell jerseys with the athlete’s name. As the Games sponsor, NOBULL takes home 100 percent of the profits from both in-person and online sales according to athletes interviewed by Morning Chalk Up for this piece. 

What They’re Saying

After speaking with several current Game athletes, managers and coaches, it’s apparent this lack of revenue is not sitting well with them. 

  • “It feels like we are being used as athletes. It’s not fair at all. They are making money from us. I think a lot of athletes work really hard and do a very good job of promoting themselves as a brand and when people want to buy their shirts etc. and they should be compensated,” said Games athlete Carolyne Prevost.
  • “I believe there should be a way to buy any Games athlete jersey, not just a few of the more well-known names as well as the affiliates who compete in the Team division. They should be available on the Games site all year round for anyone to buy and a percentage of the sale should absolutely go back to the athletes,” she continued.
  • Justin Cotler, the head coach for many Games competitors at Underdogs Athletics said the lack of jersey compensation for these athletes just touches the surface to a much bigger problem when trying to make CrossFit a professional sport.
  • “We see what’s happening with the NCAA and how those athletes are being compensated when it comes to name and likeness, but then the fact that we have professional athletes who aren’t, that’s pretty ass backwards,” said Cotler.
  • “When you have my f**king name on something, my actual name, and my gym on there and the city I’m in and you’re not giving athletes a cut of that, that’s some pretty low hanging fruit,” said a current Games athlete anonymously.
  • “In the end, these are still athletes’ personal names and identities being used on a branded shirt that may not even be their sponsor, yet they go ahead anyway, and with no compensation. In any other circumstance, the individual would receive some sort of compensation for their name and personal brand, if someone is selling it for a profit and not for a charitable organization,” said a Games athlete who previously stood on the podium.

Professionalizing the Sport

This is just one branch of an ever-growing tree when it comes to pushing CrossFit towards becoming a professional sport. Back in August of 2020, during Eric Roza’s first town hall, he indicated he would like more athletes to be able to make a better living as professional CrossFit athletes. 

  • “Can you imagine how many more athletes are going to make their living, and a really good living from CrossFit, if we have 1 billion viewers around the world?” Roza said.
  • “I don’t like using the word professional athlete all the time because that means that we make enough money competing to live off of, and most of us don’t. And that’s why we are super thankful to have sponsors that believe in us enough to allow us to live like professional athletes,” said Games athlete Bethany Shadburne.
  • “But something that I think most of us athletes and honestly fans would like to see change in the sport is more money for the athletes, expenses paid to even go to the CrossFit games (bare minimum of flights, hotel, food and not having to pay an entry fee to go to the Games) and then continuing to move in that direction with more prize money, jersey money, etc. I think we have to understand too that I believe there are changes being made but it takes patience and persistence with the athletes, staff and everyone involved with CrossFit for forward progress,” Shadburne concluded.
  • Another athlete who previously stood on the podium, agrees. “Unfortunately we’re not given a choice and it’s always been sold to us like we should be grateful for getting the publicity from them promoting us on documentaries etc. The same documentaries where we also receive no royalties for being included. Yes, it helps to increase our reach, but we only need that reach because there is so little money for athletes in this sport as it is.”

One off-season competition that’s headed in that direction is the Rogue Invitational. They offered athletes a travel stipend of up to $2,000 for those traveling outside of North America, plus five nights hotel stay. And speaking of professionalizing the sport, the Rogue Invitational is the only CrossFit event, including the CrossFit Games, that has no registration fee, pays out all competing athletes and offers comped airfare and lodging to competitors. However, the Dubai CrossFit Championship has for the past several years paid out all athletes but did not offer additional travel stipends. In contrast, the CrossFit Games has an athlete registration fee, no travel stipends and only pays out half of the competitors. 

Why Aren’t Athletes Paid?

One athlete we spoke with claims NOBULL did in fact plan on paying athletes for jersey sales — however, that never came to fruition. Todd Meleney, NOBULL’s chief marketing officer said they didn’t have enough time.

  • “There were early discussions about ways to compensate the athletes connected to the jersey sales. Unfortunately given the shortened production timelines for this year’s uniforms, it was not financially feasible to do so. Instead, the sale of the jerseys was used to fund the $2.5 million NOBULL CrossFit Games athlete prize purse,” Meleney said.
  • As for Cotler, he doesn’t think that’s a viable explanation. 
  • “Figure it out. Come on. With all due respect, you can’t tell me that there’s not a system they could have put into place to track which jerseys are being sold and to be able to compensate the athletes in some way. It doesn’t have to be a perfect system, there just has to be a system and we can perfect it as time goes on.”
  • Meleney said, this is something they plan to do this season. “With more lead time to activate the partnership in ’22, it’s our hope to bring down production costs in a manner that will allow us to be the first brand to compensate Games athletes in this way.”

How the NHL and MLB Handle This

When it comes to North American professional sporting leagues such as the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, policies vary, however athletes generally get a cut of their specific jersey sales.

  • An NHLPA representative outlined that league’s current agreement in an email response to Morning Chalk Up: “In our Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) we had what was called Hockey Related Revenue (HRR). That was comprised of ticket sales, merchandise sales, vendor sales, parking, etc, and all of that was added together, and then players and owners split it 50/50.
  • “All players are lumped into one group and then our salary cap is set off of the projected amount of HRR for the upcoming season which is our 50% of the pie. We do not get compensated individually based on the number of jersey sales with our name on it,” the representative continued.
  • The MLB’s structure is similar in that the MLB union produces checks for the athletes, and each athlete gets the same percentage from jersey sales regardless of popularity or how many are sold.
  • “There’s a group within Major League Baseball that have partnerships or if there’s an outside deal that takes place and could use multiple faces in the sport. Every player gets a licensing check at the beginning of the year. So if they go on the cover of a video game, that has essentially been compensated to the athlete already. If there are jersey sales, they’ve been compensated already and it’s a pretty decent size check for a licensing fee to the athlete,” said Jason St. Clair, an MLB certified agent.
  • “I feel like there could be some kind of base compensation (with CrossFit). With tiered compensation, if they reached a certain level they would get X, kind of like back pay for that but then as they move forward they would still get paid,” St. Clair concluded.

Important Example to Note

When major cuts from the field happened at the 2019 Games, some of those athletes’ jerseys were still being sold. At the time, Reebok — as the title sponsor of the Games — was making a profit off of athletes that were cut from the competition even though they left with nothing. A similar theme continued with NOBULL.

  • “Chandler Smith is the perfect example. Not a NOBULL athlete, makes his way to the CrossFit Games, marketable athlete, popular athlete, didn’t have the best weekend and got cut, made $1,000 because he took third place in an event before he got cut,” one current Games athlete said.
  • “If you look at that whole two weeks hotel accommodation and travel up to the Games he would have lost money, yet, there’s a company directly profiting off the use of his image selling t-shirts with his name on it,” they continued.

Meleney outlined how NOBULL approaches jersey sales and leftovers from the Games. 

  • “We produced a limited run of CrossFit Games Athletes Jerseys to be sold at the Games. We later put the surplus inventory online to offer it to those who were unable to attend the live event in Madison,” Meleney said.

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