In pursuit of greatness: Andre De Grasse and the thrill of the chase

A lucrative endorsement deal with Puma in late 2015 helped cast Andre De Grasse as the next big thing in track and field. After a record haul of three medals at last year’s Olympics in Rio, and with Usain Bolt’s glittering career coming to an end, the Canadian sprint sensation is on track to become one of his sport’s most marketable stars.

In pursuit of greatness: Andre De Grasse and the thrill of the chase

“I'm just ready to live up to the hype now.” 

When Andre De Grasse uttered those words in December 2015, few would have begrudged him a brief moment of wide-eyed zeal.

Here was a young sprint sensation who had just turned 21, a breakout talent who had recently tied for third in the 100m at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing having previously won gold in the 100m and 200m at both the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games and the NCAA college championships the same year.

Here was a man who was already one of the fastest Canadians in history, whose absurdly quick, albeit wind-assisted personal bests - 9.92 seconds over 100m, 19.88 seconds over 200m - had caught the attention of those in the athletics world and many more beyond. And here was a student who had yet to graduate from college but had just foregone his amateur status to pen the richest first endorsement deal ever signed by a track and field athlete.

For De Grasse, a supremely confident showman who hails from Markham, a city in Ontario just outside Toronto, the process of living up to the hype has been an exercise in stoking it. At last year’s Olympics in Rio, De Grasse only amplified the buzz that has long surrounded him by announcing his arrival on the world stage in exhilarating fashion. Bronze in the 100m event in Rio, followed up with a bronze in the 4×100m relay and a silver in the 200m, saw him become the first Canadian sprinter to win three medals at a single Olympics and put him on podiums headed by the one and only Usain Bolt.

But if anything, the hype is only now catching on. In recent weeks, the 22-year-old De Grasse has helped Canada to 4x200m gold at the IAAF World Relays in The Bahamas and has been racking up wins in the IAAF Diamond League, track and field’s elite circuit, at a rapid rate. A recent run of three, albeit Bolt-less 100m victories on the bounce - in Rome, Oslo and Stockholm - has only ramped up the interest and excitement ahead of a likely marquee showdown with his great Jamaican counterpart at the IAAF World Championships in London in August.

For Bolt, whose looming retirement continues to cast the most formidable of sporting shadows, this summer’s event will be a swan song, a chance to bow out from a glittering career in front of an adoring crowd. For De Grasse, who has Bolt firmly in his sights, it will be another opportunity to live up to all that hype.

“Anything but normal”

Since his medal-winning performances in the blue-riband events at Rio, off-track life has got a whole lot busier for De Grasse. Magazine shoots and offers to star in brand advertising campaigns have come thick and fast. The IAAF, track and field’s global governing body, has featured him as a subject in their ‘Day in the Life’ series, which sees international journalists profile top athletes and their personal lives away from the track. Red carpet award galas and TV appearances are now part of the day job, while numerous other media and marketing opportunities have had to be turned down because De Grasse went back to college to complete his sociology degree at the University of Southern California last autumn.

But De Grasse’s profile away from the track was taking shape well before last summer’s Games. In fact, he was on the radar of all the major sportswear companies long before his national successes of two years ago, and certainly before his coming out party at the Pan American Games in his own backyard. By the time he made the decision to turn pro in late 2015, the list of suitors vying to supply his spikes and apparel was extensive.

“At the end it wasn't about the money,” recalls Paul Doyle, De Grasse’s competition agent and business manager and the founder of Atlanta-based Doyle Management Group. “It was about who was the right company to partner with and who Andre felt he would enjoy working with the most.”

That company, as it would transpire, was Puma, who Doyle says “came full press" in their bid to secure De Grasse’s signature. But it was less the identity of the company than the size of the deal that raised eyebrows across the world of sport.

Things aligned for Andre. Had he been a different person this wouldn't have been on the table.

If anyone knows a world class sprinter, of course, it’s Puma, whose roster of endorsers includes Bolt, who has worked with the brand since his teenage years, as well as a host of other big-name track stars. Yet this deal took things to a whole new level. As Doyle notes, US$11.25 million guaranteed - a figure that could rise to US$30 million with incentive bonuses - didn’t just represent the largest first contract ever given to a track and field athlete - it catapulted De Grasse into the big leagues, putting him alongside many top tennis stars and pro footballers in terms of endorsement income.

“It was anything but normal,” says Doyle, a respected veteran of the athlete representation business who has worked with other household names such as Asafa Powell and Ashton Eaton. “But at the same time, things aligned for Andre. Had he been a different person this wouldn't have been on the table.

“Obviously, he’s showed incredible potential but also incredible marketability as a person. I think that’s what set him aside. Ultimately the numbers got to a place that we were very happy with but it was something special in Andre that really elicited that.”

If the headline figure underlined Puma's faith in De Grasse and heralded the arrival of a star in the making, it was also a personal point of pride for Doyle. Such an unprecedented deal would, naturally, further enhance his chops as an elite agent, but getting permission to disclose the all-important financial figures would be another discussion altogether.

Looking back, Doyle recalls how Puma was initially “on the fence as to whether the numbers should be released”, a move typical in other sports like basketball yet virtually unheard-of in track and field. Still, the brand eventually agreed after De Grasse and his mother, who has been closely involved in her son’s career from the beginning, expressed their willingness to go public.

“Ultimately Puma said ‘go ahead and do what you want; release them if you want to release them’,” Doyle says. “When we released the figures, two days later Puma was calling and saying what a great idea it was, just because of the amount of traction and significance it got.”

For Brian Levine, however, the decision to release the figures proved a double-edged sword. Levine, who serves as De Grasse’s brand manager, and his team at Toronto-based Envision Sports & Entertainment oversee the athlete’s sponsorship development, communications and charitable endeavours. After the big reveal, all of a sudden the discussions with prospective partners took a different tone.

“In some ways it was great because what it did was elevate the stature of what a true superstar track athlete looks like, financially speaking,” Levine tells SportsPro. “It sort of sets the stage a little bit.”

Yet, he adds, “the only downside of that, in Canada anyways, is there are some companies that have been intimidated a little bit. But perhaps they’re not always recognising that it is a global deal and that is also a deal that is pretty comprehensive in terms of the number of appearances and what it gets them.”

While De Grasse is contractually obliged to make a certain number of appearances for Puma, whose marketing team has the ultimate say on where they promote him, Doyle says both parties are cognisant of ensuring any engagements do not get in the way of his strict training regime and busy competition schedule.

Juggling on and off-track commitments is, of course, a delicate balancing act for any elite athlete and their management teams, especially those just starting out. In De Grasse’s case, it is done with heavy input from Stuart McMillan, his coach at the ALTIS training centre in Phoenix, where De Grasse lives and trains. But Doyle insists Puma, a company that has strong track and field pedigree having worked with numerous stars and national teams over many decades, including several of Doyle’s other clients, are the ideal partners to work with.

“They try to be super selective on when they do use him and making sure they capitalise on that,” he says. “For instance, at the end of last season, after the Olympics, we brought him down to Chile and he did an appearance down there. It was phenomenal how we was received. He was in shock. He literally had to have a security detail around him 24/7, going through the school in Chile and all the kids going crazy for him.

“It was amazing to us how broad his reach was. We weren't even aware. Inside of the Olympic bubble, when we’re in the moment, we don’t get to see the television coverage, we don’t get to see the public reaction. We’re so focused on what’s going on at the Games, it was really unbelievable to us to see afterwards how big of a star he had become and how well he was received globally.”

Building a brand “the right way”

Besides his global deal with Puma, who plan to use him in South America and Europe later this year following August’s world championships, De Grasse currently has three endorsement agreements in place in his native Canada: a four-year partnership with PriceWaterhouseCoopers than runs through 2020, a national deal that includes an on-running TV ad spot with pizza chain Pizza Pizza, and a tie-up with Gatorade, the most recent addition to his portfolio. He also appeared as part of P&G’s ‘Thank You Mom’ campaign last year, part of a one-year deal that included other Canadian athletes and expired at the end of 2016, and has done modelling work for fashion brands such as Hugo Boss and Harry Rosen.

Levine says more deals are in the works in "priority categories" including consumer electronics, automotive, male grooming, luxury watches and telecommunications. Asked to describe his overriding strategy, he explains that every deal, no matter the company, aims to promote a specific aspect of De Grasse’s personality.

For Puma, he says, it is all about performance and style. For Gatorade, which uses De Grasse to promote its new Frost beverage line, it is the ability to perform under pressure. Pizza Pizza, meanwhile, has positioned De Grasse as the face of its high-speed mobile pick-up service and #ShareTheMoment campaign, a social media initiative that plays on the power of pizza to bring people together.

“Pizza Pizza, they’re a brand that doesn't take themselves too seriously,” says Levine. “They’re fun, light, irreverent, they don’t go overboard with production value in their spot. We’re pretty cool with that because, on one hand, with Andre, there is a refined nature to him, a classy side to him. But at the same time that doesn't mean he can’t be fun and affable and fun-loving.”

In the interest of conveying De Grasse’s character to the public, Levine points to social media as an effective tool for spotlighting a side of him that would not necessarily shine through during TV coverage of competitions. The aim, however, is to avoid coming across as contrived at all costs - save, perhaps, for the odd post promoting a contracted sponsor. 

To that end, says Levine, nothing ever makes it on to De Grasse’s social accounts “without him being intimately involved in the process”, while the athlete’s friends and “trusted confidantes” have a role to play, too. “I remember we were at a Harry Rosen store and Andre was trying on some clothes and he had a couple of friends with him,” recalls Levine. “Before you knew it, one of his friends was doing a live Instagram feed…something that, myself, I wouldn't have thought of doing. I really embrace the close knit group of friends he has around him. It keeps it cool and authentic.”

While De Grasse’s social following is by no means huge by today’s standards - he has around 350,000 followers across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook combined at last count - Levine believes the sprinter is “the perfect example” of someone who has approached social media “the right way” - in other words, by not ‘selling-out’ and taking every offer that comes his way.

“He says no to a lot of requests,” reveals Levine. “A lot of brands have reached out on a one-off basis, wanting him to post or be part of a campaign. That’s just something we’re really not into - we’re looking to build longer-term, authentic relationships, not transactional dealings. To be honest, his following could be bigger if we went about things in a disingenuous manner.”

De Grasse began working with Gatorade, which also has ties with Bolt, following last year's Olympics. Photo: Alissa Baltazar

That proven, less-is-more approach to De Grasse's off-track brand development is set to be especially crucial in the coming months, particularly as his time becomes more focused on competing. Indeed, if the past 12 months have been a whirlwind, the next three years leading up to Tokyo 2020 are set to get even busier.

With two upcoming IAAF World Championships - in London this summer and then Doha, Qatar in 2019 - and a Pan American Games in Lima in two years’ time, De Grasse has a hectic competition schedule ahead of him as he gears up for what could be his crowning moment in Japan. As such, any future sponsor obligations will have to be carefully and creatively worked in around those commitments.

“There’s an opportunity cost that we also have to factor in,” Levine says. “Because he’s on this cusp of global stardom, we want to be careful with significant commitments purely in the Canadian market as we’re building some global partnerships.

“There are some relationships that we’re working on and can’t talk about right now, but when they hopefully come to be we need to reserve some time in his calendar - for global travel, commercial shoots, what have you. That’s why we’re really reluctant to overcommit - it’s a long way between now and Tokyo.

“Obviously the interest and the size of the deals is only going to grow between now and Tokyo, certainly if Andre stays on the path has been on and the same trajectory. 2018 will be perhaps a less pressure-filled year in the sense that there are no World Championships and no Olympics. In 2018, Andre’s definitely planning to do more on the community investment, charitable front.”

Stepping out of Bolt’s shadow

“When we hear comparisons to Bolt, obviously we take that as a compliment and it’s certainly humbling,” says Levine. “But [Andre] wants to find his own path and do things his own way.”

Any discussion about De Grasse - or indeed athletics in general - invariably involves some talk of Usain Bolt. One of the enduring images from Rio 2016 was the sight of the pair smiling at each other as they crossed the finish line - Bolt just ahead, of course - during their 200m semi-final. It was one of those moments in which the sprinters were no longer competitors but friends who were simply pushing each other and having fun - or so it seemed.

Following the events of last summer’s Games, much was made in the media of an apparent bromance that had blossomed between two Puma athletes with the world at their feet. It was a natural reaction, yet to call it a bromance would, at least according to Doyle, be some way off the mark.

“There is no question that that incident where they smiled at each other pushed Andre to the forefront, made people recognise him and notice him, that’s for sure,” he says. “But at the same time, if you really knew the story behind why Bolt was smiling at him… He wasn’t happy, put it that way. He pushed him too hard.”

Bolt shoots De Grasse a wry smile as they cross the finish line during their 200m semi-final in Rio.

In some ways, that image encapsulated the curious situation De Grasse now finds himself in. On one hand, he stands to benefit, along with the rest of his peers, from all that Bolt has done for the profile of track and field over the past decade or so. It stands to reason that his future on and off-track earning potential has only been enhanced by Bolt’s extraordinary accomplishments and unparalleled star power, yet the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen is undoubtedly a hard act to follow.

Soon, there will be a larger-than-life, Bolt-shaped hole to plug in global athletics, but there is a very real possibility that De Grasse - or any other athlete, for that matter - may never justifiably fill it, such is Bolt’s greatness and the apparent insurmountability of the records he has set on the track.

Still, De Grasse can do nothing but try. With Bolt’s retirement looming after the world championships, an event that will likely serve as De Grasse’s final chance to beat Bolt in competition, there is an obvious void to step into. Many tip De Grasse to shoulder the burden, even if few are expecting him to topple Bolt in London.

Some of the people in the IAAF are completely on board for promoting and pushing him and other times some are reluctant. They say, ‘well who is this kid? What has he really done yet?’

“Similar to Bolt, and maybe it’ll evolve over time, he’s certainly a bit of a showman,” Levine says of his client. “You saw that at the Rio Olympics. When the lights are on at the biggest races, he’s pumped, he’s excited, he’s having fun and smiling. That’s something that track and field needs more of and he brings that.”

For all the similarities in demeanour, though, Levine sees more differences between the two athletes. He notes the discrepancy in physicality, for example, with De Grasse’s “5’10, slimly built” frame “a little bit more relatable” for the average fan than the towering, muscular 6’4 figure of Bolt. “You look at him and you kind of see yourself in him a little bit,” Levine adds. “It’s easy for fans to get behind him.”

For Puma, too, Doyle believes De Grasse presents an altogether different - and possibly more compelling - proposition as an endorser. In some ways, he argues, De Grasse’s appeal is more universal, an enviable mix of raw athletic talent and polished, citified suave.

“The CMO of Puma has expressed that, ultimately, he feels Andre could be even more beneficial to the brand than Bolt was because he has a genuine urban feel and urban appeal,” he says. “Obviously Bolt has great character and great charisma and great personality, but he’s Jamaican. He doesn’t quite have that urban appeal that Andre has being from Toronto and that sort of thing.”

In that sense, it is clear to see why Doyle and Levine are wary of making too much of the comparisons with Bolt. While Bolt may have set the standard on the track and have the commercial profile to match, it is perhaps a tad simplistic to say he is a model to follow off it as well.

“We really need to figure out the path that he’ll end up taking and that’s something that we’ll definitely take step by step as things evolve,” says Doyle. “We have some ideas in mind but at the same time we need to see how things unfold and be reactive as well.”

‘The next big thing’

Though it is early days, De Grasse is already keenly aware of his responsibility to help grow his sport. He has previously spoken of his desire to blaze a trail for the next generation of track stars, particularly those coming up in Canada, but it is by no means lip service.

As well as recently accepting an invitation to join the athlete advisory commission for LA2024, De Grasse has turned down opportunities to earn more lucrative appearance fees and prize money at Diamond League meets in favour of competing in events on home soil, such as this month's Harry Jerome International Track Classic in Vancouver and Canada’s national track and field championships in Ottawa in early July. His presence at those events will help drive up interest, viewership and ticket sales, but it remains to be seen whether his home market appeal will translate globally in the long run.

Within the athletics community, too, there remains some disagreement as to whether De Grasse, the winner of last year's IAAF Rising Star Award, can fill the Bolt void, or indeed whether he should be being trumpeted as the next big thing for track and field at all. To some, he is simply another unproven talent, one for whom the hype is somewhat premature given he is yet to claim gold on the very biggest global stages.

Hundreds of fans turned out for De Grasse's Rio 2016 homecoming parade in Markham, Ontario.

Doyle, for his part, sees both sides of an argument that stretches to the “very top” of the sport. While he says Sebastian Coe, the IAAF president, “is very much a fan of Andre and he recognises that he has the potential to be the next big face” of track and field, other senior figures at the governing body, including “some of the Diamond League meet directors”, remain unconvinced.

“It’s funny,” says Doyle. “Some of the people in the IAAF are completely on board for promoting and pushing him and other times some are reluctant. They say, ‘well who is this kid? What has he really done yet?’”

But Doyle - who says he has personally invested “a lot of time and effort and money” into “trying to get the sport to a new level”, including as an investor in the American Track League, a US-based circuit that goes by the strapline, ’Where the party meets the track’ - is confident De Grasse’s time will come sooner or later. “If we’re having this conversation a year from now,” he says, “things could be very different.”

Regardless of what lies in store for De Grasse, Doyle believes the bigger picture is that the sport cannot rely on individuals and must instead work to raise its profile and exposure outside of Olympic years. Though he acknowledges that efforts are now being stepped up - both at the IAAF under Coe and by other newfangled concepts such as Nitro Athletics and Doyle’s own American Track League - he says more can be done to better position the sport for today’s digitalised world and to ensure the sport is best presented so as to appeal to a younger audience.

“Historically,” he continues, “the sport has been run - I’m trying to think of a way to put it nicely - by an older, not-in-touch-with-reality generation. The sport has not evolved in the past half century.

“Now, I’m seeing some changes at the IAAF, where they’ve hired a new CEO [Olivier Gers] who is very knowledgeable and has a lot of experience within the media realms. I think that’s the first and foremost important thing. Our sport is archaic in some of the ways it’s presented - we’re just finally getting on social media and actually executing social media strategies and that sort of thing.

“I feel optimistic about the way it’s going and I think Andre is going to be a big part of that.”