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Associated Press
Meb Keflezighi limbers up before running in – and winning – the 118th Boston Marathon on April 21. It was also a win for his shoe sponsor, Skechers.

Boston victory boosts shoe sponsor

The Boston Marathon champion crossed the finish line last week wearing sneakers from Skechers – not exactly a brand associated with sports.

The company signed Meb Keflezighi three years ago, hoping he could help legitimize its foray into selling running shoes. While his historic victory was significant enough to Skechers to get mentioned on its corporate earnings call, executives considered Keflezighi’s endorsement a success long before he won Boston.

His title is another boost to a small but growing venture for the Manhattan Beach, Calif., company.

Skechers made Keflezighi its first – and only – spokesman for the running shoes line in 2011 because he was already a familiar figure to serious runners.

Then he became the feel-good story of the marathon’s return a year after the bombings as the first American man to win the 117-year-old race in more than three decades.

“Now he’s known to most people sitting at home watching television,” said Rick Higgins, vice president of merchandising and marketing for Skechers’ performance division.

Higgins realizes many of them were surprised to learn that Skechers makes running shoes.

The company’s next series of commercials starring Keflezighi will find a way to celebrate his Boston title, Higgins said Tuesday.

Sam Poser, an analyst for Sterne Agee, doesn’t expect Keflezighi’s win to instantaneously lift Skechers from a tiny percentage of the running shoe market to a major share. But for a growing brand, every bit of positive press helps.

“It’s going to bring attention and more credibility,” he said.

Keflezighi was a big star in the running community long before he took the lead Monday wearing a Skechers logo on his shirt.

“Meb was already on a global level, an elite athlete, highly decorated,” Higgins said.

At the 2004 Olympics, his silver made him the first American man in 28 years to medal in the marathon. In 2009, he became the first U.S. champion in 27 years at the New York City Marathon.

Keflezighi was sponsored by Nike then. He said Monday that the company’s lack of interest in re-signing him was a low point in his career.

Meanwhile, Skechers was looking for new ways to expand sales. Athletic shoes were a way to do that, Higgins said. But that meant convincing potential customers that Skechers could make a sneaker in which they could run fast times.

Higgins said Keflezighi’s influence has been evident since Skechers’ performance division launched in October 2011, a month before Keflezighi ran the NYC Marathon in them.

He posted a personal-best time in finishing sixth in New York that day, then lowered it again in winning the U.S. Olympic trials just over two months later. Keflezighi narrowly missed a medal at the 2012 London Games, when he took fourth.

Those performances were critical in persuading serious runners that “if Meb can do it in Skechers shoes, so can you,” Higgins said.

At road races that the company sponsors, he said, Skechers found that entrants were lured to its booths by the association with Keflezighi. Runners blogs reviewed the sneakers because of his involvement. Skechers has been gradually getting the shoes into more specialty running shops.

As it happened, Skechers announced its first-quarter financial results last week. Net sales were up 21 percent from a year ago. Growth was strong across the board, including the performance division, said David Weinberg, the company’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer.

And he made sure, early on in the conference call, to mention Keflezighi’s victory and latest personal-best time, which Weinberg called “a major accomplishment, both for Meb and the brand.”

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