In the hours leading up to the Crew Classic last weekend, rumors of a new Nike sponsorship of USRowing started to trickle into inboxes and social media bins, and on March 31 USRowing hinted at the new relationship with a telegraphic Facebook post with the comment 'Proud partners' above neighboring USRowing and Nike logos, effectively soft-launching the partnership.
Subsequently at the Crew Classic, Nike had a significant presence at the USRowing booth, further confirming the relationship. Initial reactions in the rowing community were upbeat and positive, as rowing has been wanting for a major sponsor for some time.
Rumors of the terms of the deal have made their way to the Internet, but row2k has been unable to confirm the terms of the sponsorship, or any other specifics; a phone call and email to USRowing on Friday were not returned. People familiar with recent negotiations believe the deal is with Nike authorized licensee Athlete Performance Systems, who also previously made shoes for BatLogic.
Having heard about the sponsorship, however, Joline Esparza, founder and president of JL Racing, made the rounds at the Crew Classic inquiring among other vendors and individuals what they knew about the sponsorship. In particular, Esparza discovered that the sponsorship probably includes an exclusivity component that will not allow any vendors selling similar or competing products to have a presence at USRowing-owned regattas.
These would include all youth and masters regional regattas and national championships, the club and elite national championships, likely any trials, and possibly the World Championships in Sarasota. The relationship would appear to cover approximately 17 USRowing-owned regattas, several of them among the largest regattas of the year.
The exclusivity clause does not appear to apply to USRowing 'sanctioned' regattas, which in the simplest terms are locally-run regattas that work with USRowing to qualify for the organization's umbrella insurance policy, for registration, and similar logistical components. In most cases sanctioned regattas require USRowing membership of all participants.
The rumored dollar amounts involved in the sponsorship would also appear to disappoint community hopes for what a major sponsor could bring to the growing and largely affluent sport of rowing.
"We have all seen where a big company can come into a niche market like we have in rowing, and can decimate the landscape and marketplace," she said in a conversation with row2k earlier this week. "And then when they decide to leave, there is nothing left."
Esparza emphasized how important these larger regattas are both to JL's success as a company, but also to make possible JL's patronage of other, often much smaller regattas at which JL Racing makes little or no profit, and sometimes takes a loss; these 'loss leaders' can constitute up to 50% of all regattas they attend.
Last year, JL paid $90,000 in regatta booth vendor fees; an analysis they are currently doing on the revenue from those events indicated to Esparza that losses without the batch of major regattas would exceed that amount, causing them to lose money attending events and forcing a reevaluation of the practice of attending regattas altogether. Six of the top ten largest regattas include USRowing events such as Youth Nationals and Masters Nationals, and joined by regattas like the Crew Classic and the larger head races are crucial to the overall regatta support effort, Esparza notes.
When she factors in the considerable labor and time involved, the profit margin shrinks again, but Esparza sees it as worth the effort in order to spend face time with their customers.
"We view it as marketing," she said. "The regattas are where we get to see and talk to our customers, make repairs, and start to understand what they need."
Esparza also enjoys talking to her customers, and take special pleasure talking to longtime customers who are still wearing what is now almost vintage JL gear.
"At almost every regatta, I talk to someone with JL products from way back over 20 years ago when I was sewing them myself on an old sewing machine," she said. "I can tell because that machine could only do one type of stitch for the logo, so I know exactly when they were made."
Esparza also noted the company's patronage of regattas and the USA senior and junior teams during lean years, which certainly contributed to the health of the sport, and is part of what has created a large fandom for the company, brand, and its products.
Late on Thursday, Esparza penned a passionate explanation of her thoughts on the issue, which she posted to the JLRacing.com Web site, and forwarded to some members of the rowing community on Friday morning; many recipients immediately shared it to their social media feeds. The JL site subsequently crashed from the traffic, and while working with the hosting company tech staff, Esparza decided to post it to the JL Facebook page on Friday afternoon.
That post is shown below, and includes a fair amount of additional information, not all of it confirmed (as Esparza notes).
The most cogent elements include Esparza's outline of the role of small-ish, longtime rowing vendors not only in selling rowing-specific products to rowers, but also in supporting regattas, donating to silent auctions, and participating in other activities that are part of the fabric of our sport.
The response of JL customers and fans was swift and passionate, with messages of support, outrage, and hope in significant measure posted to social media and shared in email, with reactions numbering in the thousands after only a few hours.
Some are hopeful that there is a way to ensure the health of both potential sponsors and the companies and people who have become part of the fabric of the sport as we know it; since many large sponsorships include exclusivity clauses, if this is possible it will require a deft and thoughtful touch, and therein lies the rub.
Vendors of non-apparel rowing items expressed concerns about the precedent that might be set by an exclusive of this kind, and how far-reaching it might be.
Esparza said she remains hopeful that the sport's need for large, high-profile sponsors can still accommodate smaller companies like JL and other vendors. The ways this might be achieved would not have to be limited to being allowed to attend the sport's biggest events; in the past, large vendors such as UnderArmour and Adidas have contracted with rowing vendors to tap into their expertise to design and produce apparel in the past.
row2k will continue to cover this story, including trying to confirm or correct the information and numbers Esparza includes in her original posting here: