Brands—especially running shoe makers—don't need global stars like LeBron to boost their image
Earlier this month, Edward Cheserek, a recent University of Oregon graduate and arguably the best collegiate runner in U.S. history, competed for the first time as a professional athlete. The 23-year-old Kenyan, who says he’s still a little dinged up from a long outdoor track season, ran the Fifth Avenue Mile in 3:57, finishing in 16th place. After years of watching “King Ches” tear it up on the college scene, it was a little disorienting to see him not in contention for the win. But the real surprise came with Cheserek’s choice of footwear: The man who won 15 individual NCAA titles for the institution that embraces its “University of Nike” image was (gasp!) shod in Skechers.
Well, okay, it wasn’t a total surprise. Skechers had announced that it signed Cheserek during the week leading up to Fifth Avenue, and the company has been upping the ante of its “performance” shoe game for several years. When Meb Keflezighi signed with Skechers in 2011, there was some derision from the running-snob peanut gallery. (As one LetsRun.com commenter put it at the time, “This is like Lance Armstrong signing a deal with Huffy.”) Skechers had the last laugh, however, as Meb unexpectedly won the Boston Marathon in 2014 while sporting a natty pair of GOmeb Speed 3 racers. A few weeks after Meb’s Boston heroics, Kara Goucher became the second elite runner (and former Nike athlete) to be sponsored by Skechers.
Picking up a rising star like Cheserek might seem like the next logical step for the Los Angeles–based company to bolster its credibility in the performance shoe market. But how much is an endorsement from a professional runner ultimately worth? It’s no secret that the star power of pro runners is pretty low wattage compared to mega-celebrity athletes like LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose social media followings number in the tens of millions. (By comparison, at the time of this writing, Cheserek’s Instagram account was still set to private.) Given this discrepancy, one might wonder about a company’s priorities when it chooses to sponsor an athlete who will be largely unknown to the wider public.
The obvious answer is that a pro runner will always be more affordable than a sports icon with global clout; having a runner on your payroll is hardly going to break the bank. According to an article published in November 2015 by the Johan Cruyff Institute, a sports marketing school, getting LeBron James to promote your product on his Twitter account can set you back $140,111…per tweet. Meanwhile, Boris Berian, an Olympic finalist and U.S. and world indoor champion in the 800 meters, was offered $125,000 per year from New Balance. And for a professional runner, $125,000 is damn good. When LetsRun.com polled its readers to estimate Berian’s salary, several professional runners responded with guesses well below what he was actually offered. Kara Goucher guessed $35,000 to $40,000 per year.
“Runners don’t get paid the kind of money that basketball players get paid, so these endorsements, while they’re not free, are really not a huge [financial] burden on the brands, but it gives them credibility and authenticity in the eyes of both the true athlete and the more casual wearer,” says Matt Powell, sports industry analyst with the NPD Group, a global market research firm.
There’s also a tangible sense in which brands are helping to support the sport of running when they choose to sponsor elite athletes. For an NFL or NBA player, a shoe or apparel deal comes in addition to the sizable contract they already have with their franchise. For runners fortunate enough to get sponsored by a sneaker company, it’s often their principal source of income. Hence, for most pro runners, a coveted shoe deal will enable them to be a pro runner in the first place. (Boris Berian was working the day shift at a Colorado McDonald’s right before he burst onto the professional scene.) It doesn’t seem too crazy to assume that it’s in the interest of running shoe companies to foster conditions so the sport can produce stars.
I floated that idea by Nick Symmonds, the recently retired pro runner for Brooks Beasts and the CEO of his caffeinated gum company, RunGum. He has long cultivated a “businessman first, runner second” image. Symmonds told me that paying runners a living wage was a priority for his recent employer.
“They say, ‘If we’re going to invest one dollar, let’s invest enough that we’re actually going to allow them to train full-time,” Symmonds says of Brooks Beasts.
That might sound like he’s being a shill for his longtime sponsor, but Symmonds is also unsentimental about the fact that “supporting the running community” isn’t necessarily tantamount to supporting a company’s bottom line.
“I really think any CEO or any executive at a major company that thinks it’s their duty to prop up running should be fired tomorrow,” Symmonds says.
Would a Brooks executive care to comment? When I reached out to brand manager Steve DeKoker, he said Brooks is confident that supporting the running community is beneficial for the Brooks brand. However, he added that with sports marketing and athlete sponsorship, the ROI is difficult to quantify. (Symmonds, for the record, said the same thing.) At the end of the day, so much of it comes down to an intangible, emotional connection to a brand. But that connection, DeKoker pointed out, is more likely to happen if top athletes are wearing your product.
“You need people to authenticate your brand. By that, I mean you need the best people in the world validating that your product is legitimate and that your products can perform at the highest level. Whether people are aware of that or not, I think it factors into their purchase decision,” DeKoker said.
That authentication factor may be particularly pertinent when it comes to running shoes. Unlike pro basketball or football, where the majority of fans are nonparticipants, those who follow professional running are more likely to be runners themselves. For a running shoe manufacturer, an endorsement from a professional athlete might therefore carry more functional weight. In other words, someone who spends $220 on a pair of LeBron XIV more likely does so because they want to associate with the LeBron James aura—not because they think the shoes will make them a better basketball player. Conversely, someone who spends $250 on a pair of Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% (the new racing flat worn by stars Eliud Kipchoge and Galen Rupp) is perhaps more inclined to believe that the shoes make that coveted PR more attainable. (Not that Rupp doesn’t ooze coolness.)
The counterargument here is that sneaker brands are fashion brands first and foremost; with the exception of niche products like cleats or spikes, the majority of athletic shoe purchases are not intended for athletic use. That said, Powell maintains that when a brand increases the credibility of its performance shoes by having star athletes wear the product, that can boost sales of nonperformance and performance products alike.
Skechers might be a case in point, as the company currently sits in second place behind Adidas in the category of “casual athletic footwear.” The Southern California–based company, it seems, has come a long way since that infamous Kim Kardashian Super Bowl commercial made us reassess the erotic potential of our gym shoes.
So, will the brand’s Edward Cheserek sponsorship ultimately pay off? Possibly. It would certainly help if King Ches became a marathoner and pulled off an upset at Boston. As for more short-term goals, about that Instagram account…