HOKA ONE ONE Signs On As Title Sponsor of Northern Arizona Elite

The multi-year agreement is a “game-changer” for both upstart organizations.

In a blockbuster deal announced on Friday, Hoka One One has signed on as a multi-year title sponsor of Northern Arizona Elite, a post-collegiate training group based in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The agreement comes at an opportune time for both organizations, as Hoka, which was acquired by Deckers Brands in 2013, has been looking to expand their reach within the overall running market while the year-old NAZ Elite squad had been seeking the necessary support to create an environment for developing Olympic contenders and national champions.

“We are proud to sponsor a group of elite distance runners who compete aggressively on the national and world stages,” says Jim Van Dine, president of Hoka One One. “The team will play an integral part in helping us develop world-class competition footwear. Since the team consists of road racers, they will create brand recognition for the core runner who competes in half and full marathons.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Northern Arizona Elite founder and head coach Ben Rosario says, “It’s a long-term agreement. [The athletes] are going to be well taken care of. They’re going to be true professional athletes now and they’re going to be very well compensated for their performances.”

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Northern Arizona Elite’s roster currently has seven athletes, including reigning U.S. cross-country champion Amy Van Alstine, multiple-time U.S. team members Ben and Stephanie Bruce, 61-minute half-marathoner Matt Llano, 2:14 marathoner Scott Smith, former Arkansas standout Eric Fernandez and Kellyn Taylor, who three weeks ago ran the sixth-fastest debut marathon ever by an American woman at 2:28:40.

“It’s a game-changer for the athletes,” Rosario says of the deal. “We’re probably going to sign a couple more athletes very soon but we’re going to keep the group small. Here’s the thing: We’re not a developmental group. We’re trying to put people on the Olympic team and compete at the very highest level.”

American 50K record-holder Josh Cox, who works as the group’s agent and also represents team members Matt Llano and Kellyn Taylor on an individual basis, negotiated the deal, which was signed on Friday morning. Cox also negotiated a title sponsorship between ASICS and the Mammoth Track Club last year.

Sponsorship agreements between shoe companies and elite athletes typically takes place on an individual level, but the team sponsorship model has gained more traction in recent years. Seattle-based Brooks Running has been title sponsor of the Hansons-Brooks Olympic Development Project since 2003, producing two Olympians so far in Brian Sell and Desiree Linden. In 2013, Brooks started a middle-distance-focused training group, the Brooks Beasts, which is based in the company’s home city of Seattle. Nike is the title sponsor of three separate groups—the Nike Oregon Project, Nike Bowerman Track Club and the Nike OTC Elite—all high-level operations that have produced a swarth of Olympic berths, American records and Olympic medals. Boston-based New Balance is rumored to be forming an elite training group in its hometown, coached by former New Balance athlete and Olympian Mark Coogan, while the Boston Athletic Association, in partnership with adidas, sponsors the B.A.A.’s elite-level racing team.

“Companies are flocking to the team model because it gives their athletes a better chance to succeed by providing a coach and teammates—a model which has proven successful from high school to the professional realm,” says Cox, who also serves as agent and manager for Olympian Desiree Linden and Sara Hall.

As part of the Hoka One One agreement, all members of the team have individual contracts with the company, including Stephanie Bruce, a 2:29 marathoner who is also sponsored by women’s apparel company Oiselle.

“They [Hoka] understand Stephanie’s value and how great it is that she’s with Oiselle and I think that’s going to be mutually beneficial for all parties,” Rosario said.

Rosario, an Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier who competed as a member of the Hansons-Brooks squad during his own competitive career, said that the team aspect of professional running carries a lot more appeal for potential sponsors, while generating more fan support and also providing a better platform for the athletes to improve.

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“The team model provides a ton of bang for everyone’s buck,” Rosario says. “I think it’s a lot easier to get behind a whole team than it is one individual. In our sport, one individual might only race 5, 6 or 7 times a year and if they get hurt they might only race once or twice, if even at all. But when you’ve got a whole team, we’re racing all the time. There’s always something to cheer for, there’s always something to be excited about and from a fan’s perspective that’s a huge thing. Not only is a great model for the fans, but it’s a great model for the athletes as well. The way to get better is to train with other high level people, whether it’s guys like Galen Rupp or Mo Farah, or the Hansons, or Mammoth Track Club. Having the group environment and the team environment fosters healthy competition and encourages the correct kind of lifestyle. And finally, it makes total sense for the [sponsor] because they have a much more controlled environment in which to monitor the athletes. We are their marketing arm and they can do so much more with the group—and tell more stories, and reach more people—than they can with individuals.”

Hoka developed a small, but dedicated following amongst the trail and ultra running community beginning in 2009 with their oversized cushioned shoes before expanding their product offering—and potential customer base—in the last few years by developing a more robust line of shoes geared toward road runners while also signing a handful of high-level track athletes, most notably Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano, along with middle distance runners Mike Rutt, Kyle Merber and, most recently, David Torrence—a former Nike athlete and multiple-time U.S. road mile champion and current American record holder for the indoor 1,000m. Sponsoring Rosario’s entire squad gives Hoka almost immediate influence on the U.S. road racing scene, as NAZ Elite athletes have multiple top-10 placings at U.S. championships and have had a regular presence at various distances ranging from road miles to marathons. Creating a camaraderie between elite athletes and age-group runners has been one of the major goals of Rosario’s group since day one.

“We’re always trying to bridge the gap and relate to everyone,” explains Rosario. “And show the rest of the running population that the stuff we’re doing in training, others can be doing too.”

Van Dine says he values the close, familial relationship Hoka is able to have with their small group of sponsored athletes and values their input when it comes to developing performance-oriented products.

“[The athletes] don’t feel like a number and we feel like we can listen to them from a product development standpoint,” Van Dine says. “This is something that is very difficult to do when you have hundreds of athletes.”

Rosario, who says the group has been seeking the right title sponsor since its inception just over a year ago, believes that this most recent partnership for his group—which also has TrainingPeaks as a presenting sponsor—will allow for the long-term development that’s necessary to compete on the world stage, while simultaneously helping Hoka gain visibility and traction in the highly competitive running shoe market.

“To have that level of commitment on both sides is what I think is going to make this partnership work for a long, long, long time,” Rosario says. “We’re going to be a big part of their company. It’s a perfect fit for both sides.”