Nicky Sues USTF/USOC

Symmonds targets USOC, USATF with lawsuit

Runner accuses governing bodies of restricting sponsor advertising at Olympic Trials

By Ben Fischer, Staff Writer

January 20, 2016 04:01 PM

Two-time U.S. Olympian Nick Symmonds
The legal team behind O’Bannon v. NCAA is now targeting the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field.

Hausfeld LLP Partner Sathya Gosselin filed suit today in U.S. District Court in Oregon, accusing both bodies of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by restricting sponsor advertising at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July.

The only plaintiff is Run Gum, a caffeinated gum company co-founded by two-time Olympic 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds. An outspoken athletes rights advocate, Symmonds quit the 2015 IAAF World Championships team amid a marketing dispute with the USATF and called the suit part of a larger mission.

“This is round three of 12 that I will fight over the course of my career or my lifespan,” Symmonds said.

The lawsuit targets USATF and USOC rules prohibiting athletes from wearing corporate logos at the Olympic Trials, except for the standard marks of approved equipment or clothing manufacturers. Run Gum is seeking an injunction to invalidate the rules, allowing it to advertise on competition clothing worn by endorsed athletes, Gosselin said.

“We think that this will benefit both the sport and athletes, in that the current practice pushes down the prices paid to individual athletes for individual sponsorships, and necessarily reduces the number of sponsors,” Gosselin said. If the suit prevails, Gosselin said, hundreds of companies could offer athlete sponsorships that activate at the Trials, rather than the few dozen equipment or apparel makers today.

USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer said: "We are unaware of the lawsuit and have not been served. In any circumstance, we do not comment on pending litigation."

The USOC also had not seen the suit and declined comment. 

In general, the Olympic movement desires competition venues with limited commercial presence, and the USOC and its member governing bodies follow that theme at the Trials. The Olympic Trials are owned by the USOC but run by individual governing bodies through a management agreement. An international guideline known as Rule 50 restricts athlete advertising during competitions, but it doesn’t apply to Olympic Trials. “Rule 50 by its own terms does not reach anything other than the Olympic Games,” Gosselin said.

The Federal Amateur Sports Act of 1978 grants the USOC a monopoly over the administration of Olympic sports and intellectual property. But, Gosselin argues, the Trials’ rules fall “well outside” the law’s purview.

Symmonds says he’s “very pleased” with sponsorship rules at most USATF events, but the Trials are a uniquely valuable marketing property in the sport. The Olympic Trials are slated for July 1-10 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and will enjoy extensive coverage on NBC and NBCSN. “At least for the purposes of the United States, it’s the Super Bowl of track and field,” Gosselin said.

Hausfeld lawyers have been eyeing the Olympic movement for possible legal action, Gosselin said. The firm helped former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon successfully challenge the NCAA on antitrust grounds in 2014, paving the way for many college athletes to receive cost-of-attendance stipends.

“My firm has been receiving complaints over the last 12 months or so from professional track and field athletes who really feel there are inequities in the sport, and that athletes aren’t receiving a fair share of the revenues that USATF and its corporate sponsors are seeing as the sport of track and field increases in popularity,” Gosselin said.

To date, Symmonds and his fellow athlete’s rights advocates have focused on athlete income. But as this case makes clear, Symmonds thinks corporations are being wronged, too. At 32, Symmonds will compete at the Trials for probably the last time and he’s trying to expand Run Gum.

“We estimate there’s about 1,200 athletes competing, and 60 percent will not have an official deal with a shoe company,” Symmonds said. “That’s 720 athletes we’d like to work with, and they’re not able to court sponsors.”

Run Gum has discussed sponsorship deals with some track and field athletes but has not yet signed any.