Keflezighi’s unlikely connection with Skechers has been a win for both.
Believe it or not, about three years ago, Meb Keflezighi, then on the verge of turning 36, found himself in the unfortunate position that many distance runners experience at some point in their career—without a shoe company sponsor. Yes, the same guy that would go on to place fourth in the 2012 Olympic marathon and win the Boston Marathon on Monday was without a running shoe brand behind him for seven months.
A lot of runners find themselves in that situation, often when Nike or other big brands choose to reallocate funding to younger athletes. In fact, it’s the situation that Kara Goucher, another top-tier mid-30s American runner, is in right now.
After more than a decade being sponsored by Nike—a period in which Keflezighi earned a silver medal in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics, won the 2009 New York City Marathon, captured numerous U.S. titles and was the consummate ambassador for the sport—he was told that his contract would not be renewed.
For distance runners, a shoe company contract has been almost mandatory. The lack of a shoe sponsor often spells the beginning of the end of a competitive career, if for no other reason that it’s hard to make ends meet and still train at a high level without one. Even for runners with a résumé like Keflezighi, cobbling together endorsements is not easy.
On one level, Keflezighi was 35 in 2010 when he finished sixth in the New York City Marathon and Nike apparently thought his best days were behind him. Most other running brands thought the same, but Keflezighi knew otherwise. With the help of his brother and agent Hawi, Keflezighi made a rather unlikely connection with Skechers.
What? Skechers?! (That was general the reaction in the running industry at the time.)
Skechers is an enormous lifestyle footwear company with more than $1.5 billion in sales, but its primary areas of focus have been skate shoes, utility boots and various fitness and casual shoes. Yet the brand had quietly launched a new performance division in 2010 and was serious about getting into the running market. Makes sense. Running shoe sales had increased with 10 to 30 percent growth from 2005 to 2010, which is why many existing brands (K-Swiss, Under Armour, Scott and Skechers) suddenly turned their attention to running and why so many new companies (Newton, Altra, Hoka and Vibram, to name a few) suddenly appeared in the marketplace.
Skechers sent Keflezighi some of the early prototypes of its GoRun shoes in 2011 and he liked how they performed. That summer, he signed a two-year sponsorship deal with the Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based company, but not solely because he was looking for a paycheck. He wanted to partner with a brand that believed in him as much as he was willing to believe in the brand. Still, it was a huge risk for both sides.
Although other elite runners, running fans, running retailers and just about everyone else tied to the sport scoffed in disbelief, it turned out to be a perfect match. Keflezighi debuted in Skechers at the 2011 Rock ’n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon and won in 1:02:17. Then he placed sixth against a strong field in the 2011 New York City Marathon, lowering his personal best time to 2:09:13 in the process.
“A lot of people questioned us because we got into the market when minimalism was the hot trend,” says Rick Higgins, vice president of merchandising/marketing for Skechers Performance Division. “Everyone was jumping into the minimal footwear market with barefoot-style shoes. That was part of our story with the original GoRun and I think a lot of people looked at it as a typical Skechers play, where we jump on trends and then they burn out over time. But our story was that we wanted to be lasting. We were taking all of the steps at the grassroots level to make sure that the community really understood that we were making real running shoes and we had Meb onboard and that we were going to do everything we could to put the best shoes on the market.”
Since then, Skechers has continued to evolve its running shoe line and its midfoot strike technology, using Keflezighi’s input for both his signature racing model, the GoMeb Speed, and training models aimed at a wide range of runners. The company has also done what Skechers does best—put considerable marketing and advertising dollars behind its products. From regional and national magazine ads, a variety of online campaigns and even TV commercials during the Super Bowl, Skechers has done a lot to prime its own pump.
Another big factor that allowed Skechers to hit the ground running in 2011 is the fact it has a vast network of retail partners outside of the realm of specialty running retailers—including thousands of lifestyle mall stores and more than 900 Skechers retail stores around the world. Consider that there are between 800 and 1,000 specialty running stores in North America and it’s easy to see that Skechers has a leg up on the new brands and smaller brands fighting for space on the shoe walls at those specialty running stores.
“Having that network of stores helped us with building our shoes and getting our shoes on people’s feet,” Higgins says. “We have a vast channel of distribution. Our obvious goal is to grow our distribution channels into more sports specialty and running specialty shops and really accelerate our growth as a company. There is only so much space at retail, so you have to continue to grow or take market share from other brands or go into other distribution channels that you’re not already in.”
But despite having Keflezighi in its shoes, Skechers still had trouble in the early going getting its shoes into specialty retail stores and gaining credibility among longtime runners. Those shops have limited space on their shoe walls and dozens of brands that had been in running for a long time. But as Keflezighi continued to run well in Skechers shoes—including a win at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and a fourth-place showing in the 2012 Olympic marathon—retailers and consumers started to take notice.
Suddenly there was a lot of commotion and excitement at the Skechers booth at the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon fitness expos.
“For the longest time, it was a challenge to get people’s attention—and rightfully so,” Higgins says. “We heard people say, ‘C’mon, you guys are Skechers.’ But our marketing efforts really paid off. It became very contagious for a lot of the accounts that started to participate with our events.”
In the past 18 months, numerous specialty running shops started carrying some of the Skechers line, including the GOMeb Speed racing shoes. Keflezighi debuted the company’s new GOmeb Speed 3 in the Boston win, coinciding with Skechers’ new ad campaign. Having Keflezighi win the Boston Marathon—perhaps the most notable running race in the mainstream consciousness because of what happened in 2013—has been an enormous catalyst. The company’s stock has increased this week as a result of his win and Keflezighi has remained in the spotlight.
Skechers has made a lot of smart moves since its made the decision to enter the running market, but signing Keflezighi—and re-signing him for another three years last fall—are among the best moves it has made. Suddenly, his chances of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon team don’t seem so far-fetched, even if he will be 41 at the time.
“We clearly understood from the beginning that we were a lifestyle company trying to emerge with a new arm into performance footwear,” Higgins says. “The other companies have always had that heritage, so we have had to overcompensate to a degree and that’s what we’ve been able to do with Meb.”