When Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon, he broke the tape wearing Skechers. Skechers, the maker of shoes that tone Joe Montana's ass. The hell?
"So many things have gone wrong in my life," Meb said in his victory press conference, "like a pelvic stress fracture. Or getting dropped by Nike."
Nike, goliathing 40% of the $6.7 billion performance run category of the sneaker industry, was once Meb's sponsor. But in 2011, the Olympic silver-medalist and winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon was unable to come to terms with Nike, and so, on the wrong side of 36, Meb was sponsorless.
"I'd be mistaken if I said I didn't consider retiring," he said within an hour after winning the 2014 Boston Marathon.
It's not really about the shoes. Running companies like Nike and Adidas provide essential equipment, sure, but more importantly they provide an annual paycheck, with a bonus structure built in for faster times and higher placings at national and international competitions. Perform well and get paid. Sustain an injury or just have an off year, and reduction clauses can make a contract worth less than the paper it's printed on. There is no Disabled List in distance running.
"Reductions clauses are the worst," says one Nike athlete, who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. The athlete has been reduced twice in the last four years, and the details are as follows:
- Not top five in the U.S. by the end of the year? Twenty percent of your salary is cut.
- Not top 10? Slash twenty-five percent.
"It applies this terrible pressure," the athlete says. "You've only got something to lose."
And then there's age. If running companies were teams in the MLB, there would never be contracts like those of Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton.
This is where companies like Skechers and Under Armour have an in. They might be non-existent players on the world stage of pro running, but they're big enough elsewhere to have some cash, and they can afford to gamble on athletes the bigger companies cast aside. Their athletes, like Meb, broke big in Boston.
Nick Arciniaga turns 31 in June, and Under Armour signed him with less than 48 hours before the Boston Marathon start. Adidas, his sponsor of the last few years, couldn't come to terms by January 1, and it was their loss: he finished seventh on Monday, the second American, with the second-fastest marathon of his career.
"We had heard (Adidas) didn't have it their budget," he said. Under Armour found the cash, and Arciniaga will be taken care of through the 2016 U.S. Olympic team trials, the selector for the Rio Olympic marathon team, where he will be a contender. Oops.
Leo Manzano, an American 1500-meters runner who won silver at the 2012 Olympics, was also unable to find a tenable deal with longtime sponsor Nike post-Olympics. He announced on April 9 he'd signed with Hoka One One, a small running shoe company that doesn't even make competition footwear. It didn't matter; in a blacked-out pair of Nikes and a Hoka singlet, he won the 2014 USA 1 Mile Road Championships on Tuesday.
At his Boston Marathon presser, Meb said, "If it wasn't for [my sponsors], I wouldn't be on this podium."
Nike should have been with him on that podium. Instead, Skechers is making Meb's ass look better than ever.