I don’t know Canadian marathoner Tristan Woodfine, but we have mutual friends. After his 14th place finish at the London Marathon on Sunday, I texted two of them. Despite it being early morning in Canada, I knew they’d be watching. Both immediately texted back.
One of them wrote: “What a beautiful run… most talent and hard work I’ve ever seen.”
I’ve heard many people say such things about Woodfine’s work ethic over the years, but that’s as far as my relationship with the runner goes. He and I raced in Canada’s varsity circuit at the same time, but we never met. He seemed like the type of guy you only happened to make friends with if you finished a race near him and joined him on the cooldown. Sadly, for me, that never happened.
Until you meet Woodfine, you know little about him — he is one of those rare people whose online presence doesn’t precede them, kind of like your grandfather. Until his race on Sunday, he was a pretty fruitless Google. He still isn’t great. He doesn’t have the Instagram cred of other marathoners of similar speeds like Americans Scott Fauble or Jared Ward. Or even fellow Canadian Cam Levins. Or even most high schoolers. Especially most high schoolers.
Woodfine is part of a dying breed of athletes who don’t fret about social media. Think Canada’s version of Ben True: not an absolute troglodyte — Woodfine has an Instagram account with a few hundred followers and has posted on it a grand total of 11 times — but he probably doesn’t know how hashtags work and I bet if someone logged him out of his account he’d forget his password. I sent him a DM to join me on a podcast — but he had already committed to a few other shows, and felt all talked out.
Ten years ago, Woodfine’s paltry posting habits would have made no difference. Five years ago, it would have made him unusual. Right now, it makes him an excellent case study.
In these next few months, we will find out whether or not his 2:10:51 (a gender graded 2:28:35, based on World Athletics scoring tables) is still good enough on its own to land an athletic sponsorship, without the help of Instagram.
Woodfine is the perfect case study because, as much as his social media use is lacking, his stock as a runner is skyrocketing. His 2:10:51 nestles him between two of Canada’s modern-day marathon greats: Eric Gillis and Reid Coolsaet. Gillis ran his personal best of 2:11:21 at 34 years old, and Coolsaet ran his 2:10:29 at 36. Woodfine is 26, and is trending upwards at a promising rate. He has run four marathons since 2018:
He still lacks Coolsaet or Gillis’ staying power — that can only be achieved with time, but given his age, it seems inevitable that he will retire faster than both of them. Yet, Coolsaet and Gillis, at their peak, had paying contracts with New Balance. Woodfine ran the London Marathon on Nike Vaporflys he bought himself.
One would think that Saucony, Brooks, Hoka One One et al. are sliding offer sheets into Woodfine’s DM box right now — or sending them via snail mail, I guess. But I’m not so sure.
Brands sponsor athletes to increase visibility around their product. In Coolsaet and Gillis’ time, the best way to promote a type of shoe was, arguably, to run a fast marathon while wearing them. In 2020, brands tend to use influencer marketing to promote their product, and to be a good influencer, you don’t necessarily need a 2:10:51.
For the total luddite, an influencer is someone who creates original content for a brand and posts that content on their own social channels (like Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok), with the goal of subtly propping up the recognition and cache of a brand with that influencer's audience. The marketing strategy is relatively new, weird, and quickly dominating every industry. The influencer economy itself grossed $8 billion worldwide last year.
The loose industry standard for paying influencers is $100 per sponsored post, per 10,000 followers.
Looking Behind the Curtain
When athletes engage in influencing, they become attractive to brands, and can make decent money. The loose industry standard for paying influencers is $100 per sponsored post, per 10,000 followers. Influencer DB reported that a single post from Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse earns him $1,102 USD. A post from tennis star Eugenie Bouchard is worth $10,593 USD.
Meanwhile, athletes like Woodfine who do not play the influencing game become less valuable to brands, because their social reach cannot compare. That is making your mom and dad’s kind of elite marathoners — those who are paid simply to run — an endangered species. In fact, it’s possible that all of Canada’s Olympic marathoners at the Olympics next year race on shoes they bought themselves.
"Social media has ruined opportunities for the quiet runner who goes about their business and gets the job done."
In the US, there is more opportunity to be sponsored, because of the growing popularity of elite training groups. Still, it was apparent at the US Olympic marathon trials that endorsement deals are rare when almost three quarters of finishers wore Nike Alphaflys, or one of its previous iterations, despite not being sponsored by Nike. And these training groups, such as Tinman Elite (Adidas) and Naz Elite (Hoka One One) are, in the end, marketing concepts designed to create constant IG content, and a sculpted ideal of what each brand is for the consumer.
Reid Coolsaet's own experience with sponsorships makes him think that it could be difficult for Woodfine to land a deal in 2020. When Coolsaet first signed with New Balance in 2008, the agreement was purely based on running performance. But as years passed, he said, his contract became increasingly contingent on social reach, and less on race results. The trend, he said, favours Instagram-savvy athletes, while making life difficult for those who do not post.
"Social media has ruined opportunities for the quiet runner who goes about their business and gets the job done," said Coolsaet, "a real shame really."
Athletic sponsorships are rare nowadays - especially in pandemic times — but so are rising stars like Woodfine. The number of zeros on his eventual offer sheet, if he even gets one, will reveal lots about the state of our sport.
Before drafting his contract, brands should know that Woodfine probably won’t push their discount codes, he probably won't hire a videographer, and he probably won’t move away from his home of Cobden, Ont. to join an American training group. But they should also keep in mind that he will probably be an Olympian, perhaps multiple times over, and that he will probably get much faster than he is now.
And what’s the value in that? Time will tell.