Sole Man: More Insights About Goucher’s New Deal

After several months of being unsponsored, Kara Goucher, one of America’s top distance runners and also one of the most recognizable, signed a deal in March 2014 to be part of the Oiselle team. Photo: Courtesy of Oiselle

Will a running brand sign Kara Goucher to only endorse their shoes and not their apparel?

It was announced last week that Kara Goucher signed a new endorsement deal with upstart women’s running apparel brand Oiselle. In doing so, she says she turned down a seven-figure contract offer from a company that makes running shoes and apparel. Now she’s looking for a shoes-only partnership with a running brand. Here are a few more insights into Goucher’s new deal and what might be next for one of America’s most popular distance runners.

How did Goucher wind up signing with Oiselle and not a traditional running brand?

Lauren Fleshman, a former Nike athlete like Goucher, was the first to create some buzz about Oiselle, but the real credit goes to founder and CEO Sally Bergesen. She set out to create stylish and functional women’s running apparel and also to support elite and up-and-coming female runners. In addition to Fleshman, the brand also sponsors elite middle-distance runner Kate Grace, hammer thrower Britney Henry and dozens of up-and-coming age-group runners across the country. Combined with some flashy (and sometimes controversial) racing gear, Bergesen has built a brand with character. As to how she found the money to sign Goucher, a world-class marathoner who can command a seven-figure endorsement deal, who knows? Bergesen might not have ever dreamed of having two of the most engaging, popular and dynamic American women runners backing her product, but then again, maybe she did. Money aside, Oiselle will benefit greatly from being connected to Goucher, but Goucher should also benefit from being connected to a brand with integrity and soul.

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Why didn’t Nike resign Goucher? 

That’s a good question, and there are many answers. First, it should be understood that Nike had a first right of refusal to sign her to a new contract, but chose to release her. Goucher didn’t want to resign with Nike, presumably for several reasons as well. Nike has had a habit of not resigning runners in their 30s, even after they’ve won Olympic or world championship medals. Look no further than Nick Symmonds, Meb Keflezighi and Leo Manzano—three top American runners let go by Nike in recent years. (The feeling was mutual though, if you’ve kept track of Symmonds’ rants.) It’s actually not a bad business strategy on Nike’s part, especially because Nike, as a brand, is always concerned with what’s next, what’s new and, when it comes to athletes, who’s next. Think what you want of coach Alberto Salazar and sports marketing boss John Capriotti, but they’re primarily banking on twentysomethings Galen Rupp (27), Jordan Hasay (22), Matt Centrowitz (24) and Mary Cain (17). For now, anyway. Nike is a machine and will continue to dominate as a brand with or without Goucher. But age is only part of the equation. Nike has continued to sponsor on-again, off-again Abdi Abdirahman (37) and the seemingly ageless Bernard Lagat (39), who could be argued to have little to no marketability or identity within the mainstream American running market despite their longstanding success. They’re also behind Mo Farah (31), but he’s the best runner in the world, so that’s a bit different.

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Couldn’t have Goucher become the next “Joanie” had she stayed at Nike?

Joan (Benoit) Samuelson earned her lifetime connection with Nike for winning the 1984 Olympic Marathon. Goucher and Shalane Flanagan have gained a big following through their running and racing exploits amid the modern running boom, but nothing on the level of what Joanie did at the height of the first running boom. Goucher doesn’t have to win a gold medal to cement her status, but winning the New York City or Boston Marathon wouldn’t hurt. (Joanie won two Boston Marathons before the significance of that race was really on the consciousness of mainstream America.) She earned plenty of cred and became the first American female runner to follow in the footsteps of Deena Kastor’s greatness when she took the bronze in the 10,000-meter run at the 2007 IAAF World Championships. But while that elevated her status among those who follow competitive running in the U.S., it’s her charm, her marathon running and her persona as an ambitious mother that has made her the big draw she is today. Certainly, winning an Olympic gold or the Boston Marathon would be a lifetime ticket for Goucher, but, even without a major win, Goucher will continue to gain notoriety as a late-thirties mom shooting for another Olympic team. Obviously, Nike thought differently for various reasons and decided not to resign her after reviewing Goucher’s contract with Oiselle.

Why did Goucher want to leave Nike?

Goucher chose to leave Nike just as a business executive decides to leave the corporate jungle and become a consultant or entrepreneur. She wants to be able to have some control of what she endorses and take some pride in it. And she’s started to think about what she’ll be doing after she retires from racing. Also, the final years of her relationship with Nike weren’t all sunshine and roses. Read into what you want into the fact that she changed coaches from Salazar, who originally recruited her (and husband Adam) to Portland in 2004, to Jerry Schumacher, but know at the very least, there is a less-than-friendly atmosphere between the two groups and a not-so-pleasant feeling between the big brand and athletes. Also, there was a some alleged conflict between Goucher and Nike surrounding Nike’s alleged refusal to pay her while she was pregnant in 2010 and not able to race. It’s unknown how or if that dispute was resolved, but it’s presumably a non-issue now that she’s no longer with Nike.

So what now? Will a shoe company sign Goucher to an endorsement deal?

Look, Kara Goucher is going to race again this year and she’s not going to do it barefoot. And, barring injury, she will continue to be one of the country’s top distance runners and, possibly, one of the world’s top marathoners. Time will tell if she’ll be able to make the U.S. Olympic marathon team in 2016, but a running shoe brand should be able to get considerable traction from an endorsement deal in the meantime. (Many brands have been sending her free shoes in recent weeks, but she wore Sauconys in her publicity photos with Oiselle.) Goucher is arguably the most popular distance runner in America right now, despite racing only a few times in the past 18 months. (Our very unscientific Facebook poll over the weekend showed that she’s well ahead American rivals Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Linden and Deena Kastor.) It’s hard to think that one of the major shoe brands wouldn’t sign Goucher, even if to a lesser deal than she might have commanded last week before she signed with Oiselle. However, it’s going to come down to the risk vs. reward of signing her. Shoe-buying trends suggest that age-group runners and new runners don’t buy shoes based on which athlete endorses them—that model is  almost entirely dead—even if that was the case back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So it’s going to come down to how savvy a brand can be with Goucher. (New Balance smartly worked out a series of Fresh Foam 980 shoe ads that included Jenny Simpson, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne. Simpson, although a two-time Olympian and world champion, isn’t well known in the mainstream running population, but those ads certainly raised her profile.)

If that model is dead, why do shoe companies sign athletes at all?

If a running shoe brand isn’t going to sponsor elite runners, who are they going to sponsor? Certainly there is some positive traction by having a well-known elite athlete wearing a logo and shoes from a particular brand—Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall in ASICS, Shalane Flanagan and Mo Farah in Nike, Usain Bolt in Puma and Haile Gebrselassie in Adidas come to mind—it’s just a question of how much the brand is getting for the money they’re spending. (The model is especially dead with good national-class runners, unfortunately. The bottom line is you’ve got to be winning U.S. championships and contending for international medals to earn a shoe company sponsorship deal that can provide a viable income. If not, you might get $5,000-$15,000 from a shoe contract.) In this case, it’s about how much traction Goucher has in the U.S. market and how well a brand can use her image. Certainly, if the spike in online sales Oiselle has experienced since last week’s announcement means anything, there is definitely an impact. Kastor, Hall, Simpson, Rupp, Keflezighi and only a handful of other American distance runners have earned high five-figure and low-to-mid six-figure annual incomes in recent years. Even with the limitations created by her Oiselle deal, a three-year to four-year deal with a shoe company in that same ballpark of numbers should be a possibility.

What are some of potential pros and cons for a shoe company interested in signing Goucher?

There are probably two main issues here. One is that Goucher is 35 and probably has only about three or four more solid years of racing in her, depending on how her body responds in her late 30s. As Goucher herself pointed out, Romania’s Constantina Dita won the 2008 Olympic marathon at age 38. More importantly, if her body holds up, it appears that she could be one of the top five marathoners in the U.S. for the next several years—although it’s clear that, aside from top talents Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden, there are more up-and-coming women marathoners in the U.S. than men, if you consider the recent results of sub-2:31 runners Lauren Kleppin, Becky Wade, Serena Burla, Annie Bersagel and Clara Santucci, among others. (And to that point, the lack of sub-2:12 depth on the men’s U.S. list should at least allow Keflezighi to be a contender in 2016 for the men’s marathon team.)

The second big issue is that she has been “branded” a Nike athlete all of her career (including while she was a three-time NCAA champion at Nike-sponsored University of Colorado). Virtually every running photo of her for the past 15 years (except for the new ones released last week of her wearing Oiselle gear) have a Nike Swoosh somewhere in the frame. That’s not entirely a bad thing at this point. While she might have achieved all of her racing goals with another brand, she might not have had the exposure, publicity and opportunities she had with Nike. Oiselle is a small company, but it has heart and soul, and that will go a long way. A shoe company that is willing to allow its own apparel line to be overlooked, could benefit from the genuine vibe Goucher and Oiselle are exuding.

PHOTOS: Kara Goucher’s Career Highlights

Is there something to be learned from what happened to Meb Keflezighi?

Keflezighi was branded a Nike athlete for most of his career, until he was unceremoniously dropped (or not re-signed) in 2009. He signed a lucrative deal with Skechers and has continued his racing success—winning the 2009 New York City Marathon and numerous U.S. titles, as well as placing fourth in the 2012 Olympic marathon—and has gained more notoriety and publicity than ever before. (Case in point: the current Skechers TV spots featuring Keflezighi.) And he also helped put Skechers on the map in the running shoe world. The key is that Keflezighi has remained in top form into this late 30s. Keflezighi himself has admitted that he’s made more money, become more well-known and probably even raced better since joining Skechers.

What if a shoe brand can’t figure out a way to sign Goucher?

It will be their loss. Goucher has the looks, charm, results and lifestyle (remember, she’s a mid-30s mom) to land bigger endorsement deals than what a shoe brand might offer at this point. With a good agent, Goucher could make some hay (and some cash) with bigger brands and mainstream products. Goucher’s popularity ranges from high school girls to middle-aged moms, so that could mean a brand in the hair and makeup category, a food and beverage company or even a vehicle brand. Although she’s in the twilight of her career, she’s still at the peak of her earning power. If you consider the commercial viability of every other American distance runner, Goucher and perhaps Mary Cain have the best chance at transcending the sport into mainstream consciousness. Goucher’s clock is ticking, but it’s a three-year window to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and the hopes of making it to the Rio Olympics, and that’s significant. Cain may or may not blow up (in a good way) in the mainstream. Although she’s gained a huge following with teenage runners—and that will help her status—she’s probably still too young to impact bigger markets in which most consumers are in the 25-55 age range.

Can Goucher help bring about change for future runners?

In recent years, American track and field athletes have been upset that they can’t generate more income from personal sponsorships due to USA Track & Field and IAAF rules, as well as restrictions placed on them by their shoe company sponsors. Goucher, like Fleshman, is hoping to break that mold by signing a deal with a brand only to endorse their shoes (because she already has an apparel sponsor). It’s not entirely unique to running—there are cases in which athletes have partial sponsorships in other sports—but it’s magnified in running because almost every running shoe brand is tied to an apparel line. Can Fleshman, Goucher, Symmonds and others bring about that change? They’ll only have a chance as long as their own personal marketability remains high and their results remain competitive. Fleshman and Symmonds are both writing books (something Goucher has already done) and they are both smart and savvy bloggers who have something to say. Certainly each of those runners has already helped make change, but, aside from their results, the key is that they’re all high-profile athletes with strong and very likable personalities.

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