#ShirtStorm @ Atlanta Spartan Sprint: Brand Competition Or Violation Of Personal Freedom?


Shortly after the Atlanta Spartan Sprint took place, the OCR Gear posted the following:
“Rumor has it Spartan Race forced a female finisher to change out of her BattleFrog Series shirt before taking the podium in Atlanta. Say what??”

Armed with hashtags #shirtstorm and #shirtgate, the online community was livid. This was David vs. Goliath – a racer, one of us, against the big scary corporation that was telling us what to wear.

I reached out to Brenna herself, who was understandably upset about the situation. Not only she was singled out of the crowd by the race announcer, who hinted that her team might not receive a prize, because of the shirt she was wearing, she was also required to change out of her shirt, before taking podium.


Brenna in BattleFrog t-shirt, and wearing Spartan shirt after being asked to change

“It’s an official rule”, she was told.

The official rule part was a little fishy… If this rule was indeed official, it was about as widely publicized and accessible as the demolition plans from the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

And, of course, these podium photos from the Spartan Cruise happening on the same weekend, did not help one bit.

PicMonkey Collage

Brenna said: “I just want people to know that I am all for rules and regulations and standards, and I will do what I’m supposed to do if it is held up to everyone. That was not the case here – it is not as stated rule and this needs to be known and rectified”.

Colby Connell, the VP of Marketing for Spartan Race, helped to clarify the situation: “There was never an official rule about racers’ apparel. This was a miscommunication from the race announcer – we run many events, and things like that, while unfortunate, are bound to happen”.

She goes on to say: “We are supportive of all competition in the industry, as it helps to further promote our sport. We may be selective in what images we feature on social media, however, competitors can wear whatever they want – during the race, and on podium”.


The situation at the Atlanta Sprint was poorly handled – no question about it. Here’s to hoping that this is an isolated incident, which does not reflect the culture of the Spartan Race. I’d hate to think that the most competitive race series cannot handle a little bit of competition.

A number of years ago, while working for Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), I have once whipped out an HP handheld device in a meeting. The look from my manager was murderous. I got the hint.

Brand competition is a real thing – especially, in the increasingly competitive obstacle racing industry. Brand recognition does not come easy.

Notice, that in the previous example, I did not get onto a soapbox, waving around my HP device, declaring how I had a right to use whatever device I wanted. It simply seemed disrespectful.

“Hold on”, you may say. But it’s not like a Spartan employee was wearing a BattleFrog t-shirt in this case. You are right. Although that would have been funny. I can just imagine a photo of Norm, sporting a bright orange headband, leaking on social media. How deliciously scandalous would that be?

Every racer can wear whatever they damn please to the start line, unless it is explicitly stated in the rules that they cannot.

As you sign the Spartan Race participation waiver, you “irrevocably grant unlimited permission to Releasees, to use, reproduce, sell and distribute any and all photographs, images, videotapes, motion pictures, recordings or any other depiction of any kind”. In other words, if you see your own smiling mug on a huge Spartan Race poster overlooking Time Square, the company owes you nothing. It’s their image.

But the waiver does not include any references to gear worn or products advertised. BeetElite from head to toe? Go for it. Wear a Spartan t-shirt to a BadAss Dash (as I have unintentionally done in the past), wear a Tough Mudder t-shirt to a Spartan Race. Hell, wear a tutu – many do! [The Death Race would be a notable exception, perhaps – as you’d be literally begging to be picked on. And I’d pay to watch someone show up to DR wearing a tutu. Of course, you may indeed end up in a tutu at some point during that race. After all, racers had to do a ballet class at one point, and wear an adult diaper.]

Yet, race organizers asking a racer (nicely!) to remove or cover up a piece of clothing with another race’s logo before promotional photos are taken for the race is reasonable.

After my friend Rhonda, who is a visually impaired ultra runner, completed her first Tough Mudder in New Jersey, we were interviewed by TM marketing team. One of the guides was asked to cover up the Spartan logo on his sweat shirt. Completely understandable, no?

I interviewed Shayne MacKay, a brand strategist, with over 20 years of experience in brand development, marketing and advertising. MacKay, who boasts the Harvard Business School’s executive program in marketing and design management as part of her professional background, had this to say:

It’s not necessarily an ethical issue, it’s a legal issue. Both race organizations would have legal and contractual obligations to their own sponsors and investors. If you have someone standing on their podium in a race shirt of a competing organization, they have every right to ask a racer to remove that shirt. The podium is a major promotional opportunity. This is not only a competition in the field, it’s a competition for the brands too.

Sports promotion is really very tricky – everyone is getting paid by someone out there – and there are so many contractual arrangements and exclusions and inclusions. The reality of this situation is: follow the money. 


One could argue that it is not the responsibility of participants to comply with sponsor obligations. But, it’s not like the idea of athletes only having to wear certain brands is new.

In 2014, the CrossFit community was furious after learning that CrossFit athletes had to wear Reebok gear only, from head to toe – all provided by the Games major sponsor.


The official rules read:

Athletes must comply with CrossFit’s uniform requirements and only official competition apparel or apparel or items expressly pre-approved by CrossFit, Inc. shall be permitted. Each Athlete shall not wear, use or display any apparel, equipment, accessories, symbols, art, graphics or other items not expressly approved in advance by CrossFit, Inc., including, without limitation, headwear, apparel, tape, sunglasses, water bottles, stickers, logos and body or head tattoos or art (temporary or permanent).

Have been wearing your Nike Romaleos all year in training? Too bad.

There was an uproar, of course. How can the HQ allow a sponsor to dictate what happens in the SPORT? How? Very easy. CrossFit (just like Spartan Race) is a business before it is a sport. An inconvenient truth many forget to mention or refuse to believe.

You may hate the rule, you may disagree with the rule. Yet CrossFit being CrossFit, demonstrated a fantastic example of iron-clad implementation. Official rule? Check! I am convinced that most money in that company goes to the legal department.

Reebok is, of course, not just a random example. It is a major sponsor of the Spartan Race. So, is mandated apparel in our future? Will elite wave only be allowed to wear Reebok?

Until the Spartan Race decides to follow CrossFit and introduce an official rule in regards to apparel, the racers can wear whatever the hell they please.

Given the increased emphasis on community, and team racing within the sport, we will see more and more cross-pollination across races. Spartan Race shirts at Tough Mudder events, BattleFrog shirts at Spartan Races. #OCRunited and all that.

However, this is a business. And as a business, it only makes sense for any race company to NOT want to promote another race. You may be asked to cover up competitor’s logo. It would be in the best interest of the race organizers to ask nicely. And you can always refuse.

Can’t blame them for trying though.

It’s not personal. It’s just business.

just business


YOUR TURN: Do you wear competitor race shirts to other events? Why? Why not? Do you think the race organizers can ask racers to not wear competing logos in promotional pictures?

Liked this post? You may enjoy my post on trans athletes in CrossFit and rabid libertarianism, or my musings on censorship.


Posted March 18, 2015

3 responses to “#ShirtStorm @ Atlanta Spartan Sprint: Brand Competition Or Violation Of Personal Freedom?”

  1. Dennis Buchanan says:

    Great post, Solo.

    Interesting comments by Mackay, but my experience is that, in most sports, there are relatively few events with the clout to override the arrangements athletes make with their own sponsors – the Olympics comes to mind.

    In most sports, most high-performance athletes will be sponsored. Likewise, yes, most high-performance events will be sponsored. So you might well have three or four equipment manufacturers who sponsor most of the top athletes in an event, only one of which swings an event sponsorship deal for the particular tournament – exclusive advertising rights and all.

    For most tournaments, if you say to full-time HP athletes “You can’t wear the logos or use the equipment of anyone other than the event sponsors”, you’ll basically be telling the majority of the top athletes “Go away”, thus compromising your competition. So it would really surprise me if your average high-performance tournament considered entering into a contract with its sponsors that limited what athletes are allowed to wear. (Not to say that there aren’t *any* limitations on what athletes can wear. Certain sports, tournaments, or athletic organizations impose certain standards on attire.)

    Indeed, this is why those same companies sponsor successful athletes: They want their own logos displayed on the podium. Now, Reebok doesn’t need to pay CrossFit athletes directly in order to force them to wear its logo. But with the impossibility of athletes obtaining sponsorships in CrossFit, what impact will that have on its long-term viability, and its ability to attract top athletes in the first place?

    What is perhaps most unusual about OCR is that the *events themselves* are at the commercial core of the industry – this is why Spartan (not Reebok) might be concerned about an athlete wearing Battle Frog: Spartan is selling a product, and Battle Frog is a direct competitor.

    By contrast, you wouldn’t generally see the Rogers Cup tennis tournament as being in any way a commercial competitor of Wimbledon.

    Yes, Spartan is a business, and has legitimate business reasons to take issue with its athletes advertising competitors. But there’s a more fundamental question here: *SHOULD* Spartan be a business?

    In most sports, the function served by organizations such as Spartan tends to be served by *not-for-profit* (and often government-funded) sport federations (whether at the international, national, provincial, or regional levels). These federations tend to create uniform sets of rules, scoring guidelines, training accreditations for officials, athlete ranking systems, etc. They make sure that the competition is fair, and in that way legitimize it in a way that stimulates the market for sponsors, athletes, and other stakeholders. Even professional sports leagues like the NHL are not-for-profit.

    There’s a huge amount of money in some of these sports. Less so in others. But at the end of the day, the organization tasked with ensuring that the competition is *fair* is not taking a cut of the profits.

  2. […] has been some talk by the parties involved, a little more has been written around the circumstances of the Spartan Atlanta elite awards ceremony, and, like any […]

  3. […] still talking about the Spartan Race and the competitors’ logos in their photos. Yet another #shirtstorm broke out after the Spartan Race has blurred out the BattleFrog logo from Ryan Atkins’ […]

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