Selling Canada’s fastest man
He’s still competing on the track, but he’s now becoming his own corporate brand
When Andre De Grasse strolls into the rooftop patio bar at LaVelle on King St. W., a small team of stylists and publicists accompanies him the way rivals on the track usually do. A stride behind and in his shadow. Two days earlier, the 22-year-old Olympic triple medallist powered Canada to 4x200-metre gold at the IAAF world relays in the Bahamas, blazing the race’s third leg to break away from the U.S. and Jamaica. Twelve hours later, he’ll be back at the track, training before a full day on set shooting a Pizza Pizza ad. And in 10 days, he opens his 2017 season with a100-metre race in Doha, Qatar.
But tonight, De Grasse is the honoured guest at a soirée launching the latest issue of the fashion magazine DTK for Men, featuring him in a front cover photo, a back-cover Puma ad, and seven-page spread.
The hectic four-day trip home hints at the opportunity and the dilemma De Grasse confronts this season.
A growing endorsement portfolio boosts his personal brand, but timeconsuming sponsor obligations could affect De Grasse’s training.
His team thinks De Grasse can smash current personal bests, win a medal at this summer’s world championships and threaten current sprint king Usain Bolt — but only if they can successfully balance the craft of sprinting with the business of being Andre De Grasse.
“It depends on me,” says De Grasse, who lives and trains in Phoenix. “Most of the time it’s really tough to pass on a (non-track) opportunity but I have to because track and field comes first. That’s my career. That’s where my bread and butter’s at.”
Keeping De Grasse fast and sponsors happy requires a co-ordinated effort from the sprinter, coach Stu McMillan, manager Paul Doyle and Toronto-based marketing agent Brian Levine.
McMillan says the key is to plan in advance, identifying key competitions, plotting non-negotiable blocks of training and picking spots to build De Grasse’s brand.
The four days after world relays presented a gap in the schedule, allowing Levine to book sponsor events in Toronto.
“It’s not even a necessary evil because the sport wouldn’t exist without all this other stuff you need to do,” says McMillan, who trains De Grasse at the ALTIS training centre. “It’s organizing . . . and then being creative enough on the fly to ensure that it’s not getting in the way of the important work we’re doing at the track.”
For this season, that work didn’t start until January.
De Grasse spent the autumn in Los Angeles, finishing his sociology degree at the University of Southern California. The move limited his preseason training but enabled him to jump-start his nascent modelling career. De Grasse’s magazine photo shoot took place in Los Angeles, as did a session for Harry Rosen, with whom he has also partnered.
“As a brand, going back to school was the right call,” Levine says. “So we optimized his time there.”
De Grasse had planned to optimize his time at Tuesday night’s event before ducking out, sleeping eight hours then hitting the track early Wednesday morning.
The eight-hour sleep didn’t happen, but the workout did — an hour with chiropractor Dr. Alban Merepeza, then four 90-metre sprints at an indoor track in Pickering.
De Grasse arrives 30 minutes late for his Pizza Pizza commercial shoot on the outdoor track at York Uni- versity, but nobody’s disappointed.
Not his teenage co-stars, track athletes happy to meet their idol.
Not Pizza Pizza reps, glad the shoot’s happening after one session was rained out.
And not De Grasse, back at the track where his improbable rise began.
In May 2012 he joined the track team at Milliken Mills High School mid-season, several months after his friend Mikhile Jeremiah first began nagging him to start the sport. Where De Grasse thought he’d run the 800 metres, Jeremiah convinced him to try sprints, then fielded a barrage of questions from his nervous friend on race day.
“He kept asking, ‘How do I do this? How do I do that?’ ” Jeremiah says. “And I said, ‘Bro, just run.’ ”
What happened next is now part of Canadian track and field legend: De Grasse running his first 100-metre dash in 10.9 seconds, even though he wore a basketball uniform and lined up in a two-point stance instead of starting blocks.
These days, he races in custom spikes he receives under his multiyear, $11.25-million deal with Puma. And where he started sprinting on a whim, every race this season is both a competition and business decision, and not just for De Grasse.
Choosing to compete at Canada’s national track and field championships in Ottawa in July, for example, means giving up three potential appearance fees at Diamond League, pro track’s 14-event elite circuit.
He also plans to compete at the Harry Jerome Classic in Vancouver in late June. It’ll be a steep pay cut in both appearance fees and prize money, but De Grasse’s presence will drive ticket sales and online viewership for the National Track League event.
“You have a responsibility as an elite athlete to try to grow the sport,” McMillan says. “He’s not just a Canadian star. . . . He’s going to be one of the global stars, so you’ve got to find the time to do these other things. This isn’t something that’s on the side of running track. This is part of running track.”
Today’s commercial has a straightforward plot — De Grasse crosses paths with some teenagers at the track and a high-stakes foot race ensues. Winner gets pizza.
Handicapping that race is easy, but projecting this season’s outcome is trickier.
Since 2015 only two sprinters have defeated De Grasse in the final of a global championship: Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin.
At world relays, De Grasse and Gatlin met on the anchor leg of a 4x100metre semifinal. Gatlin took the baton with a clear lead but De Grasse overtook him with a burst of speed that made the American veteran look pedestrian. De Grasse has never defeated Gatlin in an open 100, but they’ll meet Friday in Doha’s Diamond League race.
Last season De Grasse improved his personal-best times to 9.91 in the 100 metres and 19.80 over 200, marks that still put him well behind Bolt’s world records in the 100 (9.58) and 200 (19.19).
But Bolt posted those results in 2009 and has rarely approached them since, while De Grasse has upside and a knack for executing under pressure. In Rio he outran four sprinters with faster personal-best times to claim 100-metre bronze.
“If he beats Bolt, everything will change,” Jeremiah says. “(De Grasse) knows this is his year. You might see something special. He’s a guy to get it done.”
The Jamaican star isn’t just the world’s fastest man; he’s the sport’s highest-profile and highest-paid performer. He earns a reported $33 million annually in prize money and endorsements, anchoring marketing campaigns for brands like Puma, Gatorade and Samsung.
Bolt’s looming retirement positions De Grasse to become track’s next crossover star, even if he doesn’t win gold at the world championships in London. Puma and Gatorade already have deals with De Grasse, but a world title could make De Grasse a mainstream star in Canada and beyond.
“It’s his last chance to go up against Bolt, and that does mean something to the market, to individuals and fans,” Levine says. “So how do you tie that into brand plans of companies?”
De Grasse recognizes he’s more valuable to brands if he’s winning. He’s also feels more fulfilled on the job when crossing the line first.
He enters 2017 as the third-fastest Canadian ever over 100 metres, behind Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin, who share the national record at 9.84 seconds. McMillan thinks a healthy, in-shape De Grasse can lower that record by a tenth of a second, and take two-tenths off his 200 mark.
But before De Grasse stresses his endorsement portfolio, or even his national records, he follows the advice Jeremiah gave him five years ago before his high school track debut. Just run. “I care about breaking records (but) I care more about medals than about times,” he says. “If you get a medal, the times will come.”