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March 8, 2023

Track and Field Needs More Luxury Watch Sponsors

You could not time it better!

Perfectly overlapping with Nafi Thiam’s record-setting performance came the horological announcement that her sponsor Richard Mille had released their first women’s sports watch, the RM 07-04 Automatic Sport. I do not expect she had to pay the full retail price ($185,000, for those with a couple hundred grand burning a hole in their pocket reading at home) for the watermelon-colored timepiece on her wrist.

You may vaguely recall that Wayde Van Niekerk received a lot of attention for breaking the 400m record at the 2016 Olympics while wearing an equally ugly piece. Given that track generally is a time-focused pursuit, this sort of pairing makes sense.

Many stars such as Noah Lyles, Keely Hodgkinson, Mondo Duplantis, and Yulimar Rojas represent Omega, the official sponsor of the Diamond League. When Femke Bol broke the 400m world record this season, she was donning a $50,000 Aqua Terra.

During the Commonwealth Games, Longines entered the arena on the wrists of Josh Kerr and Peter Bol. And Hublot, which is controversial in some enthusiast circles, supports Usain Bolt, Dina Asher-Smith, and Mujinga Kambundji.

Seiko, the Japanese watch company best known for the creation of the first quartz watch, is in the middle of a ten-year partnership with World Athletics. They do not sponsor Devon Allen.

There isn’t much in-the-moment-utility for athletes to wear super expensive watches in competition. By comparison, a few hundred dollars for a basic GPS watch grants its wearer the ability to upload a run to Strava to dunk on your friends – that feels more reasonable.

But these partnerships boil down to one thing. When those less familiar with our world ask, ‘so how does professional track & field work?’ my elevator explanation has always been that athletes are moving billboards.

For a premium luxury product like a high-end watch, the association with the best in the world positions the brand as aspirational. Just as we all dream of one day being able to afford a Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph 5270P-001 – or finding one at a garage sale – the performances of Olympic champions are placed on a pedestal.

Sponsoring amazing feats is how Rolex separated itself from the competition and became the status symbol that it is today. In 1928, when Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English channel, she brought one with her. Sir Malcolm Campbell had one on his wrist when he broke the land speed record in 1935, and Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier with a Rolex.

The history of watches and racing is closely tied, albeit generally with racing cars. As much as every track fan would like to mimic F1 for its Netflix series, it might be worth following suit in the sponsorship category instead, and rebranding ourselves as a luxury sport. In nature, track and field is known for its inclusivity. (Every reject who failed to make his middle school basketball team now has a newsletter centered on running, after all.)

Although this goes against my suggestion to start handing tickets out to fill the stadium in order to entice sponsors, what if we do the exact opposite? All I know is we can’t keep doing what we are doing. From now on, if you want to watch Jakob Ingebrigtsen chase a world record it is going to cost an arm and a leg. Comically large hats with flowers are required! And we can start by putting NCAAs behind a paywall – it’ll only cost you a Casio.

The Lap Count is a weekly newsletter delivered on Wednesday mornings that recap all the fun action from the world of track & field. It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the sport. There is a lot happening and this newsletter is a great way to stay up to date with all the fun. Subscribe today.

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