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Sunday, June 16, 2024

HOKA is Reimagining the NIL Relationship for Some of America’s Best Amateur Athletes

Sponsored by
By — Front Office Sports
Posted — June 4, 2024

The name, image, and likeness (NIL) floodgates have been open for nearly three years now, and for all the initial excitement around big-name, big-money deals, the question remains: What happens after those partnerships are announced? Are brands supporting the long-term development of young athletes, or is the supposed NIL revolution ultimately just a trend where currency gets exchanged for social media posts?

HOKA, the renowned athletic footwear and apparel brand, is betting on a new reality for NIL that goes beyond one-and-done deals. Instead, it opens doors for future opportunities and maintains relationships with athletes for years to ensure their success.

Three young male athletes are sitting in a locker room, dressed in black and yellow athletic gear. The athlete on the left wears a white HOKA bucket hat and holds two large foam shoe-shaped props. The middle athlete smiles while holding a foam finger. The athlete on the right is enthusiastically speaking into a megaphone and pointing. They all appear to be in a light-hearted, celebratory mood. The lockers behind them are blue and open, displaying their sports equipment and personal items. A red chair and a leather bag are placed on the right side of the image.
“I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities and taken my running and the social media side of my life to the next level. I’ve been able to grow as a person and strengthen my skills in working with brands.”
– Kole Mathison

In December 2023, the company took a major step toward fulfilling that vision. As part of a groundbreaking collaboration with Foot Locker, HOKA helped breathe new life into America’s premier high school cross country series: the 44th Cross Country National Championships. What set this apart was the competition itself and the superstar treatment these athletes received—from top-tier shoes and swag to first-rate travel and luxury accommodations. This event set the foundation of a larger strategy encompassing HOKA's dream of a more robust and beneficial NIL ecosystem.

One of the most compelling aspects of HOKA's approach to NIL is the signing of recent champions from the cross country series who are now in college. Take, for instance, an athlete like University of Colorado Boulder cross country runner Kole Mathison, whose journey from high school champion to college star is a testament to the transformative power of NIL. Sharing the highlights of his sports journey and personal stories reveals the depth of his dedication and the profound impact NIL can have on an athlete’s life.

A person wearing a striped shirt is holding a clipboard with a "Foot Locker Cross Country Regional High School Championships 2013" form. The form is titled "UW-Parkside Kenosha, WI" and appears to be blank, ready for information to be filled out. Surrounding the clipboard are three individuals dressed in white athletic gear, sitting and listening attentively. The scene suggests a pre-race briefing or team meeting. The focus is on the clipboard and the form, indicating the importance of the upcoming event.

“I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities and taken my running and the social media side of my life to the next level,” said Mathison. “I’ve been able to grow as a person and strengthen my skills in working with brands.”

Jordan Rogers, a notable media personality in the sports industry who was on-site to witness the national championships, applauded the company, saying: “HOKA’s NIL strategy is really smart. They created an amazing atmosphere for those cross country athletes in San Diego.”

HOKA’s commitment to these athletes goes beyond mere sponsorship; it’s about empowering the individuals who embody the spirit of their brand. When you look at the comprehensive state of NIL, it’s evident that HOKA is committed to pushing the boundaries of this evolving landscape. Their deals emphasize growth, accommodation, and development as much as financial gain. Mentorship, skill-building, and community engagement are key elements of every athlete’s relationship.

A bulletin board filled with various memorabilia related to Foot Locker cross-country events. The items include several posters, race bibs, ticket stubs, and ribbons. Prominent among them is a blue and yellow HOKA running shoe hanging by its laces. There is a vintage Foot Locker South Regional poster from 1993, a flyer with the text "Our course record is older than you. Today’s your chance to rewrite the books," and a "Foot Locker Varsity Cross Country Travel Team" poster with images of runners. The board is a vibrant collage celebrating past races and achievements.
“HOKA’s NIL strategy is really smart. They created an amazing atmosphere for those cross country athletes in San Diego.” – Jordan Rogers

HOKA’s trail-focused NIL initiative exemplifies their holistic approach, with mentorship as its cornerstone. In this program, HOKA pairs each of their signed athletes with an elite team member, enriching their outreach efforts and providing invaluable guidance to young athletes. This mentorship offers the young athletes both physical and emotional support, helping them navigate their upcoming seasons.

A standout example of this impactful mentorship is the partnership between Summit High School junior runner Ella Hagen and American triathlete Heather Jackson. Both women have achieved remarkable success in their careers, and now they support each other in their new endeavors. This summer, Ella will crew for Heather as she competes in the Western States, one of the world's ultimate endurance tests. In turn, Heather will support Ella in the Youth Chamonix Courmayeur segment of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc this fall.

A young female athlete is running in an outdoor cross-country race. She is wearing a lime green and black "SUMMIT" athletic top with the number "439" pinned to it, black shorts, and large, wrap-around sunglasses. Her blonde hair is tied back with a green ribbon, and she appears focused and determined as she runs through a dry, grassy terrain with scattered bushes and rocks. The landscape in the background is arid and hilly, indicative of a challenging race environment.

“The mentorship program is an incredible opportunity to bring young and experienced athletes together–not only to strengthen the community but to show athletes just how far they can take the sport if they are willing to try,” said Hagen. “I am incredibly excited to be paired with an athlete like Heather Jackson to see first hand that side of the sport and to learn as much as I can from her.”

The excitement surrounding NIL is certainly justifiable, but the challenges and realities of sustaining these partnerships are often under-discussed. HOKA’s collective mindset not only addresses the current needs of NIL beneficiaries but also envisions a future where athletes are prepared in ways that redefine our understanding of the space.

As the NIL landscape continues to evolve, HOKA stands as a trailblazer, proving that there is more to athlete-brand relationships than meets the eye—it’s about fostering growth, inspiring the next generation, and leaving a mark on the world of sports on and off the field.

A group of young athletes is gathered in a locker room, standing in a circle with their hands stacked together in the center, showing unity and team spirit. They are wearing matching black and purple athletic gear with "WEST" printed on it. The athletes are smiling and appear excited, likely preparing for a race or celebrating a team achievement. Behind them are blue lockers, a corkboard with various notices and posters, and a shelf with trophies, adding to the ambiance of camaraderie and competition.