A long time ago—before sneaker companies had the marketing clout to spend millions of dollars sponsoring telecasts of the Super Bowl; before street gangs identified themselves by the color of their Adidas; before North Carolina State's basketball players found they could raise a little extra cash by selling the freebie Nikes off their feet; and before a sneaker's very sole had been gelatinized, Energaired, Hexalited, torsioned and injected with pressurized gas—sneakers were, well, sneakers.
This is an article from the Feb. 19, 1990 issue
They were flimsy things, canvas on the top and rubber on the bottom. The lowtops came in white or blue. The hightops came in white or black. They were all made in the U.S.A., and you could call them tennis shoes if you wanted, even if you didn't play tennis. The older and rattier they were, the better. You kept them until they wore out, or until your mother or a roommate threw them out, for there was nothing in the world quite like the smell of an old pair of canvas sneakers—it could overpower the stench from the bottom of a birdcage.
No worries. For less than $15, you could buy another pair exactly the same as your last pair, because year after year sneakers didn't change. Sneakers weren't slaves to fashion. They weren't used for making statements. The only statement you made by wearing your sneakers was that you were going to hack around all day, and you were going to have to wash your socks afterward.
That was a long time ago, before the kids of the baby boom launched the fitness boom and, simultaneously, the yuppie-consumer boom, creating the sneaker boom, which has caused a shortage of floor space in closets all over America.
I just wanted everyone to remember his P.F. Flyers, Converse All Stars and U.S. Keds.
No doubt about it, sneakers have improved. Today they are cushioned by various space-age technologies and have arch supports and waffled soles to allow the foot to exert its natural torque. Did you know your foot had torque? Very scientific stuff, this modern sneaker business.
Virtually all sneakers are now made in the Far East—South Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia—after being designed in the U.S., Japan or West Germany. Flexibility, stability, cushioning—those are the things that podiatrists and orthopedists look for in a modern sneaker. To that foundation, the marketing gurus must add something called attitude. Nike's newest Air Jordan sneaker, for example, due out this spring, will have a molded collar that was inspired by the contours of the Bat-boot—which Nike designed for the hit movie Batman—and a row of little red flames. That's attitude. If those shoes were playing in a theater near you, no toe under 17 years old would be admitted unless accompanied by a big toe.
As for the consumer, he wants everything: fashion, support, attitude, plus a perfect fit. Money is apparently no object. "Price levels meet resistance only when the product doesn't work," says Reebok's chairman, Paul B. Fireman, whose Pump model went on the market for $170 last Thanksgiving weekend and has sold like hotcakes.
The modern sneaker is constantly evolving in its search for perfection, as everyone who has recently tried to replace his old worn-out sneakers knows. If your favorite sneaker model is more than three years old, it's probably no longer around. Sneaker fashion and technology march on. Sneaker loyalty is trodden into the dust.
Specialization is the sneaker buzzword of the 1990s. Today, sneakers are made for every known activity, in colors God never thought to put in the rainbow. (How about money-green?) Reebok alone has 175 models in 450 colors and patterns, and Nike offers an even larger selection, with a separate line of sneakers for each of 24 different sports and a total of 300 models and 900 styles. There are sneakers designed for walking, for cycling, for hiking and for aerobics. There are even sneakers for boardsailing—laceless bootie-like things called Aqua Socks. If you want to give your friends some laughs, just try playing touch football in Aqua Socks.
Tennis shoes have certainly come a long way. Nike's top-of-the-line Air Tech Challenge II ($95), the signature shoe of Andre Agassi, now comes in either low-cut or three-quarters height (Agassi himself wears the latter), with Hytrel (thermoplastic) stability straps for support, Durathane toe wraps for durability, and pressurized gas in the sole for cushioning. Boy. You wouldn't dream of wearing those babies in a backyard game of Wiffle Ball. Agassi's sneaks are white, with strange black stripes on the sides and pink speckles around the soles—a splattering of pink, really, as if he had worn the shoes earlier in the day while he painted the guest bathroom.
Running shoes, which in the early '70s started the trend toward mass-produced, scientifically designed, higher-priced sneakers, now come in so many different models it is virtually guaranteed that you will choose the wrong shoe for your needs. There are running shoes for heavy people (over 180 pounds), flat-footed people, high-arched people, heel-strikers, runners who supinate, runners who pronate, fast runners and people who run through the woods. No single shoe store can carry all these models and their different sizes, for both men and women, so you will walk into a Foot Locker one day and buy something that sounds good until you talk with a jogger at a cocktail party who subscribes to one of the running magazines, and he will tell you that what you really wanted was the Tiger Gel Striker, not the Tiger Gel-LD Racer, and woe be unto your feet.
This, as you might have guessed, recently happened to me. Only I bought the Nike Air Max Light ($80 on sale) instead of the Nike Air Stab ($110), or possibly the Nike Air Span ($80). The last two were the recommendations of the Nike spokeswoman I talked with later in the week, after I sprained my ankle while wearing my Max Lights.
There are even athletic shoes that have been painstakingly designed so they can be used for more than one activity. Just imagine being able to walk, play tennis and go bicycling in the same pair of sneakers. That is such a revolutionary concept these days that the marketers had to come up with a special name for it: cross-training shoes. Bo may know diddly, but if he knows what cross-training is, he is one up on the rest of us.
It is probably worth mentioning that an estimated 80% of the sneakers sold in this country are never used for the activities for which they've been designed. That is to say, four out of five pairs of basketball shoes are being used for pedestrian activities like jumping onto the school bus and rebounding back to the mall. Performance shoes are the fashion. Americans want to stand in line at Baskin-Robbins wearing sneakers in which they could dunk a basketball if only they were shaped less like couch potatoes and more like Spud Webb.
Why not? Share the fantasy. Where's the thrill in putting on a pair of earth shoes? Sneakers are cool. As Byron Scott says in the Reebok ad, "A lot of people are into BMWs. I'm into gym shoes."
According to a 1989 Athletic Footwear Association (AFA) survey, 93% of Americans own at least one pair of sneakers. More than 150 million pairs of brand-name sneakers were sold in the U.S. last year, more than twice as many as five years before. There are certainly not twice as many feet out there as there were in 1984. What happened?
Two things. First, women leapt into the sneaker market with both feet. Starting with the aerobics craze of the early '80s—which between 1983 and 1986 propelled little-known Reebok from $13 million to $850 million in domestic shoe sales, tops in the industry—the women's market mushroomed. Last year's AFA survey revealed that the average woman now owns 2.6 pairs of sneakers, compared with the 2.5 pairs owned by the average man. Nike's sales to women—walking shoes, running shoes, tennis shoes—jumped 44% from 1988 to '89. Upstart L.A. Gear, with $600 million in sales and 11% of the sneaker market last year, has become a major player in the business by tapping into the impulse-buying Valley Girl set. In '89, L.A. Gear's trendy women's sneakers—replete with sequins, buckles and leather doodads—accounted for 77% of the company's sales.
The second thing that happened was a revolution in marketing. As recently as 1987, Reebok spent only $12 million on advertising; Nike, $23 million. That year, not coincidentally, was also the year Nike launched its Revolution campaign, a fabulously successful series of television ads that showed John McEnroe, Michael Jordan and assorted baby boomers cavorting in Nikes to the 1968 Beatles tune sung by John Lennon. That and the Nike-Air line, with its window in the sole and its Air Jordan model, helped turn Nike's fortunes around.
After having been surpassed in sales by Reebok in 1986, Nike has climbed back to the No. 1 spot (about $1.6 billion in 1989 sneaker revenues compared with Reebok's $1.4 billion, according to industry sources), thanks in large part to its Just Do It campaign, which advertises Nike as the shoe company for the serious athlete. "You'll never see us do an ad with people just milling around,"' says Nike spokeswoman Liz Dolan. "The sweat person is the core Nike consumer."
That "milling around" remark is a reference to the disastrous Reeboks Let U.B.U ad campaign of 1988, which showed odd characters—a fairy godmother coming out of a subway station was one—going about their surreal business in Reeboks. The ads fell flat, and Reebok sales did not rise appreciably. The lesson, which Reebok has taken to heart, is that in sneaker advertising, sweat outsells style.
The net result of all this is that advertising budgets have soared. In 1989 Nike spent about $50 million and Reebok about $60 million in advertising; L.A. Gear, $25 million. Nike estimates it will spend some $70 million on advertising in 1990 and another $25 to $30 million on promotions: sponsoring races, hosting high school all-star clinics and outfitting college basketball teams.
Those costs, obviously, are passed on to the consumer. It costs only $15 or $20 to manufacture a pair of sneakers that retails for $60 to $100. The rest is profit and promotional hype. Still, sneaker sales grew approximately 23% a year between 1985 and '89. "Ten years ago, people had an average of 1.2 pairs of athletic shoes in their closets," says Fireman. "In 1987, Reebok customers owned an average of 4.5 pairs. By the mid-'90s those same customers will own six to six and a half different pairs of sneakers apiece. Footwear will no longer be an accessory, it will be the main course. People will buy outfits to match their shoes. Kids will wear a different pair of sneakers to school every day, depending on their mood."
This rococo projection of 21st-century life is a parent's vision of hell. But it may be on target. "Kids don't have the ability to buy a BMW," says Reebok's chief of marketing, John Morgan, "so they make their fashion statements with their feet."
Critics have assailed the sneaker companies for exploiting this circumstance. Some have even accused the companies of luring inner-city kids—who wear flashy attire to earn acceptance as big guys on the block—into the drug trade by pricing top-of-the-line sneaker models from $125 to $175. Certainly a few recent ads have been in questionable taste. One Reebok Pump promotional video had Glenn (Doc) Rivers of the Atlanta Hawks saying he could use the Pump to "intimidate people," while a black youth said, "If somebody sees these shoes, they're like, whewww, where did you get these? You must be bad or something." Bad, in this case, does not mean good. Two years ago, before its Valley Girl phase, L.A. Gear put out a poster of the Lakers' Mychal Thompson wearing its sneakers and carrying, ahem, a machine gun.
As you might expect, the sneaker companies deny that they target inner-city kids any more than they target kids in, say, rural Indiana. "Our higher-end shoes are basketball shoes," says Nike's marketing chief, Tom Clarke, "and basketball is in its highest art form in the inner city. The fact that our shoes sell well there is a function of how important basketball is to those communities." Convinced now?
Six years ago virtually every player in the NBA had an endorsement contract that paid him anywhere from $1,000 to $500,000 to wear a particular brand of sneakers. Odds were that brand was Nike, which in 1984 shelled out free shoes and cash to 135 of the NBA's 273 players. But times and marketing strategies have changed. These days Nike has only 30 NBA players under contract. "You don't need every player on the bench," says Dolan. "There are so many people endorsing things that the consumer has gotten jaded. Does anyone really believe that Tip O'Neill stays in those Quality Inns? So we've decided to get a few great players and to do a lot with them."
Marquee value. That's what the marketing folks are looking for. And they are willing to pay through the eyelets to get it. This strategy is also being adopted by other sneaker companies, both big and small. Forget doling out a firm's hardearned cash so some obscure NFL lineman can muddy up the corporate logo. Sneakers are too chic for those hogs in the trenches. Give us Paula Abdul, the pop star, who endorses Reebok's Double Time, the top-selling fashion athletic shoe. Or that fitness-crazed moonwalker, Michael Jackson, who signed a multimillion-dollar contract to promote L.A. Gear.
How can a fledgling sneaker company break in against that kind of promotional clout? Roberto Muller, the president of Phoenix Integrated, a $15-million privately owned company that is seeking a niche at the less pricey end of the name-brand basketball-shoe market, asked himself that question and came up with a creative solution. He signed Patrick Ewing as the Phoenix spokesman by giving Ewing approximately 25% of the company's sports division. "Imagine if somebody had made that deal with Nike years ago," says David Falk of ProServ, which represents Ewing. "He'd be worth millions. And when an athlete has equity, you can bet he'll do everything he can to see to it that his sneakers sell. The company ends up with a better spokesman."
No more embarrassing shenanigans, as when Los Angeles Rams running back Wendell Tyler wore one Adidas shoe and one Pony shoe during the 1980 Super Bowl. No more blatant infidelity, as when Philadelphia 76ers star Darryl Dawkins switched from Nike to Pro-Keds, back to Nike and then to Pony in a single spring, 1982. No more cutting the logo off one shoe and sewing it on a competitor's model, as distance runners have been known to do.
It's not exactly a deep, dark secret that people—even very rich and successful people—will say or wear just about anything for the right price. But how much do celebrity endorsements affect sneaker sales? Very little, if you believe the survey taken last year by the AFA. Only 4% of respondents thought that it was "very important" that a particular sneaker was worn by a famous athlete, while barely 3% thought a rock or movie star's endorsement carried much weight. So why do sneaker companies go right on signing up celebs? Because people who answer surveys either fib or do not understand the power of subliminal association. "You will never convince people around here that it doesn't make a difference that the best basketball player in the universe wears Nikes," says Dolan. "It has to give us credibility, even if it's only in the back of our customers' minds."
The popularity of Michael Jordan and his Air Jordan line is legendary among sneaker executives. "If Air Jordan were a separate company," says Falk, who negotiated the deal for Jordan, "it would be something like the eighth- to 10th-biggest athletic-shoe company in the U.S., with more than $100 million in annual sales."
More than a million pairs of Air Jordans were sold in the model's first year, 1985, and Air Jordan has been Nike's top revenue-producing basketball shoe ever since—"the MVP of the footwear business," as one Nike executive puts it.
Jordan has final approval over both the design and the cosmetics of his shoe, which is completely restyled every year, like Yves Saint Laurent gowns. One of the first Air Jordan models came in black and red. That particular design was promptly banned by the NBA because it didn't have enough white in it to match the sneakers worn by Jordan's teammates. Nike, recognizing a raft of free publicity when it saw it, jumped on board with a series of Banned By the NBA commercials that propelled the Air Jordan line to the top of the sales charts. Attitude.
One year Air Jordan's attitude included a swatch of imitation iguana skin sewed onto the upper (the boot). "It looked really nice," recalls Falk. The following year Nike left its trademark swoosh off the Air Jordan—the first time the company had ever omitted its logo from one of its models. The Air Jordan due out this spring, which will retail for $125, will be available in both black with red flames and white with red flames. The fall model, for those of strong stomach, will be in white, purple and green.
Jordan's deal with Nike calls for him to get a piece of the wholesale price of every pair of Air Jordans sold. Since the company moves about a million pairs a year, and the wholesale price in 1990 is $68.75, Jordan can expect to rake in several million for his promotional efforts. That's in one year. "Michael's in a class by himself," says Falk. "No one else even comes close in sneaker income."
Ah, but Bo is catching up. Jackson, who endorses Nike's cross-training shoes and wears the Air Trainer SC, also gets a percentage of sneaker sales, and Nike expects to sell more cross-training shoes (10.5 million pairs) than basketball shoes (9.9 million) by the end of fiscal 1991. By then I might even know what a cross-training shoe is.
All told, the AFA estimates that Americans of all ages will spend some $5.5 billion on brand-name sneakers in 1990. About half of that sum will go to Nike and Reebok, the Coke and Pepsi of the sneaker business, who have been 1-2 (or 2-1) in the industry since 1985.
Most analysts predict that as those two giants flex their marketing muscles, they will continue to gain market share at the expense of the R.C. Colas of the sneaker world: Converse, Puma, New Balance, Etonic, Brooks, Adidas, Keds, etc. But the sneaker business is a fast-changing game. L.A. Gear was nowhere as recently as 1986, with just 1% of the sneaker market. And 20 years ago, the top eight sneaker companies were known as Adidas and the Seven Dwarfs. Says Morgan: "Take your hand off the wheel for 22 seconds in this industry, and you're left at the back of the bus."
In its effort to regain the top slot, Reebok has recently tried to reposition itself opposite Nike as a performance-footwear company, rather than a fashion-driven one. In the past year Reebok has introduced four new technologies in its sneakers: Hexalite, Energaire, the Energy Return System (ERS) and the Pump. You would have to be a physicist to explain all the principles that supposedly come into play in these technologies, and rather than try, I will recommend that you trot down to your local shoe store and see how they work for yourself.
It's easy. All you have to do is flip the sneaker over and peer at its sole, which, these days, is like looking under the hood of a car. Everything is there for your perusal: honeycombs, coils, pouches of air. This visibility is a marketing ploy called exposing the technology—a concept that was hatched by Nike a few years ago when it decided to cut little windows in the heels of its Air-Sole models to allow consumers to see all the way through them.
Whether any of these new technologies actually work is subject to debate. Mention ERS around Beaverton, Ore., home of Nike, and the guffaws can be heard all the way to Stoughton, Mass., home of Reebok. "The whole idea of Energy Return is absurd," says Mark Parker, Nike's vice-president and director of design. "It's pseudotechnology."
"As Philip Knight, Nike's chairman, once said, 'The most sophisticated piece of research equipment Reebok has is its Xerox machine,' " says Dolan, greatly amused. "As for the Pump, we came out with one before they did. If you actually played basketball in their shoe, it would break. It's a shoddy piece of engineering. We think the Pump's a flash in the pan at best."
Ouch. Some of Dolan's—and Nike's—vitriol might be explained by the fact that Reebok's Pump is outselling Nike's Air Pressure at a rate of 15 or 20 to 1, according to Sporting Goods Intelligence, an industry newsletter. Why? The Pump is a superior piece of engineering, not at all of shoddy design. Nike, which prides itself to the point of arrogance on being the footwear company with an unwavering commitment to research and development, could not, after five years of trying and testing, figure out how to put the darn pumping mechanism inside the boot. So Nike designers opted to fill the Air Pressure's air bladder using a hand-held pump, a contraption that the sneaker's wearer must carry around in his pocket and will ultimately lose. Worse, Nike forgot the first rule of the modern sneaker business: Ugly doesn't sell. The Nike Air Pressure has a Urethane (plastic) collar around the top that, even Dolan admits, makes it look "orthopedic." As one Foot Locker salesman told me, "The shoe looks like it's got a tumor. I won't carry it in my store."
Reebok's Pump, by contrast, has its pumping mechanism, in the shape of a small basketball, encased in the tongue of the shoe. You cannot lose it. It is clever, and it is fun to play with. A 13-year-old friend of mine named Chris got a pair of Pumps for Christmas and was so excited that he called up his best friend, Richie, to spread the news. "You want to hear them?" Chris asked. Hear a sneaker?
"Sure!" Richie said, knowing precisely what Chris meant.
"I'll call you right back."
Chris pumped his shoes up, called Richie back and then—pssssssssstttt—let the air out into the phone. Richie thought that was radical.
So do the Reebok folks. They call that little incident interacting with the technology, and they believe it is the direction of things to come. "Retailers tell us they have never seen such excitement," says Reebok's president, Frank O'Connell. "Every bladder has been put underwater for two hours, tested and retested. We've done excruciating quality control. Because if we can perfect this technology in a basketball shoe, we can perfect it in any shoe. The Pump will have some phenomenal applications."
"The sneaker industry is based on gimmicks," says Gary Jacobson, an analyst for the investment firm of Kidder, Pea-body, who has been recommending the purchase of Reebok stock since September, "and the Pump is a great gimmick. I think it's going to blow away Air."
Reebok is betting heavily that Jacobson is right. The company, which will come out May 15 with a cheaper ($130) redesigned basketball Pump shoe (the new model is called the Twilight Zone), also has plans to introduce a Pump tennis shoe that Michael Chang has agreed to wear in May when he defends his French Open title. Then, in January of '91, Reebok will bring out a Pump running shoe. Then maybe a walking shoe. Other applications? Says Fireman: "We're designing a Pump shoe with a dial, so you can pump up separate compartments—maybe just the heel and arch—to whatever pressure you want. The potential of the Pump in everyday shoes is limitless."
Nike hopes not. "It's preposterous to put a pump in a running shoe, or any lowtop shoe," says Clarke. "You can have a campaign that will make someone want to buy a shoe once, and whip up a lot of excitement, but the question is: Will that consumer come back? The best product will out in the end."
O'Connell wholeheartedly agrees. "The consumer's going to be the judge. But I can tell you, we're flying."
"We'll eventually get to the point where the bladder becomes the shoe," predicts sneaker designer David Miller, who already is sketching lighter, racier designs for Reebok's 1991 Pump models. "An airbag with a sole on it might be the ultimate application of this technology."
Aesthetically speaking, it is clear that the world is not yet ready for an airbag with a sole to be the final word in sneakers. And podiatrists are quick to point out that customized fit isn't everything, that an airbag with a sole on it sounds a lot like an air cast, which is used to immobilize feet. "If you get to the point where you stop the function of the foot, you'll stop the performance of the athlete," says Dr. Donald Baxter, an orthopedic surgeon in Houston. "I think the fad of the '90s will be multiple shoes for training: not only sprinting shoes, distance shoes, but shoes with different heel heights. Alternate the height of the heel and you change the mechanics of the foot. That way you could work out and stretch a different set of muscles and joints on different days."
"Shoes up until recently have been a safety device," says Reebok's research engineering manager, Spenser White. "Now we're looking at athletic footwear that will actually enhance performance and training. That's more than just a sneaker."
It certainly is. Sneaker is far too primitive a word for what's available today in athletic footwear. (The word sneaker, as it is applied to footwear, is more than a century old. "Sneaks...are shoes with canvas tops and india rubber soles," James M. Greenwood, an American etymologist, wrote in 1873. The word was probably coined by some wiseacre who noticed a neighbor creeping out after dark in his tennis shoes. "Got your sneakers on, eh, Silas? Say hello to Loretta.")
Nike's Tinker Hatfield, who designed Marty McFly's futuristic shoes for Back to the Future, Part II, foresees a day when each sneaker—or whatever it will be called—will have a computer chip in it that adjusts the tightness of the laces, the shoe's arch support and its cushioning according to the size and weight of the wearer and the sport he intends to play. Imagine the possibilities. Punch a button, and your sneakers transform themselves from tennis shoes into basketball shoes. Little air pockets inflate to support the ankles just so, straps tighten around key ligaments, the heels adjust for maximum jumping ability. Punch another button, and you are ideally shod for soccer; another, for jogging, cycling or roller skating—you name it. Think of the closet space saved. Gone will be the moments of stressful decision making: cross-training shoes for squash, or tennis shoes? Air Spans for my jog, or Air Stabs? You might even be able to change your sneakers' color with a simple flick of a switch—lime on puce when you're feeling loose, scarlet on gray for Saturday. What a pair of sneakers that will be.
Actually, I used to own a pair of sneakers like that. I wore them for soccer, for tennis, for softball, for squash—all that stuff. I used to adjust them by tying the laces. They turned scarlet on gray after I wore them to paint the barn.
Such a great pair of sneakers. I wonder why my mother threw them out.