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Brand Strategy Ageism Sports Marketing

Ageist brands must learn commitment to athletes is a marathon, not a sprint

By Cat Tyler, Head of new business and marketing

April 21, 2023 | 6 min read

As the London Marathon approaches, Dark Horses new business chief – and keen runner – Cat Tyler explores how brands can fix an ageist approach to sports marketing.

Marathon runners

Mo Farah’s tilt at the London Marathon proves brands must update ageist approach, says Cat Wiles / Unsplash

With the London marathon just around the corner, the media is awash with stats and figures about Sir Mo Farah. But, as he enters his fifth decade, these focus less on his credentials as an athlete and more on the fact this could be his ‘last shot’ before he hangs up his running shoes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. The press, brands and events are all contributing to a misconception that sport is for the young and the older we get the less we belong in this world. The media are all too quick to write athletes off as soon as they are close to ‘retirement’ age (which can be anything from high teens for a gymnast to early 30s for a long-distance triathlete).

Sports companies only sign rising stars or those at the peak of their careers and advertising features talent in their 20s. Even amateur events categorize competitors as ‘veteran’ from the age of 35. Allowances for pregnant athletes are just beginning to emerge in the form of contract clauses and event place deferrals, but these won’t immediately erase the long-held belief that a women’s best sporting days are behind her after having children.

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All of this can have a damaging impact on professional athletes whose contracts often get cut short pre-emptively, but it also has a much wider impact on the general population who incorrectly apply the age prejudices they see in the media to themselves.

An amateur athlete has a totally different trajectory for their sporting ability. Where an elite will have had in-depth training from an early age to get them to peak at what science states is the optimum age, a lot of people only discover a passion for sport in their 30s, 40s 0r 50s when lifestyle changes allow. This means they will not only participate until an older age – it’s not uncommon for over half of participants in a triathlon to be over 50 – but they will reach their personal peak much later.

Strava data for the 2016 London marathon showed that the average finish time for runners in the 25-34 age group and 55-64 age groups were almost identical, while the fastest category was actually the 35-44 year-olds.

This is great news for brands who are looking at a much larger market with more commitment, time and disposable income. But in order to properly reach them we need to change the way we communicate.

We need to stop making age-related assumptions about athletes and be more aware that each individual is on their own path. Australian marathoner Laura Weightman has been an Olympian four times, yet it was only this year at the age of 44, after having two children that she ran her marathon personal best.

We need to show older athletes in our comms. Diversity is incredibly important on all fronts, and this is no different. The more we show people participating in sports into their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond the more people will feel like they are able to.

We need to champion the successes of older athletes. It’s all too easy to applaud the latest world record or grand slam winner but also let’s celebrate people like Oksana Chusovitina, a 46-year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan who has competed at eight Olympic games. Or 52-year-old Clare Elms, who only discovered her talent for running after the birth of her triplets and has been the fastest female finisher in every one of the 158 park runs she’s completed.

More than ever, we need to be aware of the language we use. When Serena Williams announced she was stepping away from tennis last year she was very careful to frame the change as her ‘evolving away from the sport’ rather than retiring. Yet the media is unrelenting and constantly refers to her statement as a ‘Retirement essay’.

And finally, to all the race organizers out there, I understand that categorization is needed and indeed wanted by many participants. But please stop referring to me as a veteran. I’m only 36 and have many, many years of running left ahead of me.

Cat Tyler is head of new business and marketing at Dark Horses

Brand Strategy Ageism Sports Marketing

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