What To Make Of Fred Kerley Leaving Nike For Asics

By Kyle Merber

February 22, 2023

The times they are a-changin’ and so are Fred Kerley’s spikes. The fastest man in the world has signed a new contract with ASICS. Since finishing up at Texas A&M in 2017 as a 400m runner – which seems like a lifetime ago – Fred Kerley wore the swoosh on his chest. Hell, for years, it seemed any American who dreamed of podium finishes in the sprints was in either a Nike or Adidas kit. Well, not anymore!

ASICS has always been viewed favorably by distance runners. Most of us have run at least a few hundred miles in a shoe named for a cloud. The MetaSpeed has remained competitive with the best of the super shoes. We all know – or are – a middle-aged man who rocks the Kayano with blue jeans.

But maybe that’s beginning to change – ASICS might be a sprint brand, too! The biggest prospect out of college in 2022 was undoubtedly Joseph Fahnbulleh, the former Gator who went from NCAA champion to 4th in the world at 200m. He signed with ASICS. Then this indoor season was filled with rumors and ambiguous tweets by stars that moves were being made. Now the question is did ASICS spend their entire budget betting on these two guys, or is this just the beginning of a big bet on the sprints?

From a marketing perspective, someone of Fred’s stature immediately brings a ton of legitimacy to ASICS’s brand and product – there is no way he is going to be lining up in shoes if he didn’t trust them. If you’re Nike, there are no doubts as to whether or not your gear works, so maybe Kerley’s value wasn’t quite as high for them.

The mistake a lot of armchair experts will make is in assuming that whatever dollar amount is being paid to an athlete will create the equivalent, immediate return on investment. Let’s say Fred is being paid $1 billion, a number I obviously just made up. He is not expected to turn around and generate $1 billion of sales. That’s not how commercials would be valued, and professional athletes are essentially moving billboards.

If done properly, this deal is just one small part of a greater strategy to influence the way consumers perceive a brand. If Fred, Joseph, and the next signing can make ASICS cool, then sure, maybe they’ll sell some extra spikes, but they’ll certainly make even more selling lifestyle shoes.

Had you told me in 2014 when I was getting made fun of by high schoolers for my footwear that in a decade’s time HOKA would soon be seen on fashion runways, traded by sneakerheads, and shilled by yoga bloggers, then I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are, and now I regret not asking for my salary in Deckers stock!

There is this notion that professional runners are poor and underpaid, and that’s definitely true for a percentage of the population, especially in relation to other sports. But financially speaking, there has never been a better time to be an American track and field athlete. Brands are clearly seeing the value in sponsorship dollars right now! And in a world where everyone thinks they’re an influencer, and all TikToks are ostensibly ads, then there is legitimacy and social capital to be gained by being associated with real talent.

The competition is good for everyone as it raises wages. A couple of years ago when Under Armour committed to making a splash in distance running, it formed some groups, but needed bodies. So what did they do? They offered every distance runner in the country a pretty damn good contract. And then the athletes could either accept it or take that number to a competitor for negotiation. Suddenly with options on the table, the number of years and potential reductions attached to a deal also changed. Add on top of that the competitiveness of the OAC, and the attraction for top NCAA athletes has become more complicated.

In the past year, it’s been Puma who has elevated the standard contract – most notably the recent signing of Olympic 100m champion, Marcell Jacobs. But they’ve also added just about every previously unsponsored distance runner with a shot of hitting a qualifying standard. And maybe I am projecting my own feelings onto others, but it seems like fans have taken a newfound interest in these moves. That’s good! Because as thousands of fans react to this news, then it only serves to increase the value of athletes — let’s keep paying attention.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.