Why Basketball Sneakers Are Getting Beat By Running Shoes

While the play of the NBA’s elite, such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James and James Harden, seems to improve with every game, basketball shoes aren’t progressing as fast as the game’s rising stars.

The basketball sneaker category — which will be in the spotlight at this weekend’s NBA All-Star game — is still a major sales driver for athletic retailers, including Foot Locker and Finish Line. But it’s been overshadowed by retro running in recent seasons, and some lifestyle retailers believe oversaturation and repetitive storytelling is diluting the market.

“Over the last two years, companies have taken retro basketball and in-line product and spun off too many colors, too many stories. How much can somebody have in their closet at one time?” said Mike Packer, owner of Teaneck, N.J.-based Packer Shoes. “Some of these models are being brought to market for their third or fourth time. It loses
the allure.”

Ankur Amin, co-owner of East Northport, N.Y.-based athletic retailer Renarts, said that while the product is improving, there’s not enough newness to keep the customer’s attention.

“The lifestyle guy, he’s tired of the same ol’ same ol’. [The] LeBron has died down in terms of storytelling,” he said. “Nike’s basketball innovation is amazing — the product is lighter, quicker, more responsive — they’re technically the best shoes ever in the marketplace, but [our lifestyle consumer] doesn’t care about that.”

Nike LeBron 13 Luxbron
Nike LeBron 13 "Luxbron."
CREDIT: Courtesy of Oneness

At the same time, running has been gaining steam at independents and across the board.

According to data compiled by SportsOneSource, the category accounted for 38.6 percent of athletic-footwear sales in 2015. Basketball was the second-largest category in the athletic market, with 22 percent of sales — a 0.7 percent drop from 2014 — followed by casual athletic footwear, with 21.3 percent, up from 18.9 percent in 2014.

Matt Powell, a sports-industry analyst at The NPD Group, said lifestyle running shoes are the most attractive silhouettes in the athletic market today.

“Retro running is hot right now — it’s been the strongest growth category over the last year and particularly in the second half. From a fashion point of view, it’s probably the strongest growth category we’ve seen,” he said. “[And] the casual-running or lifestyle-running category, with shoes like [Nike’s] Roshe and [Adidas’] ZX Flux, has been strong.”

Despite basketball’s second-place status in the marketplace, many footwear players are still betting big on the category.

Dick Johnson, president and CEO of Foot Locker, said innovation is fueling excitement in the segment. “It doesn’t necessarily have to mean a new technology. It could mean a new way of breaking a color pattern on a shoe; it could mean a different lacing system,” he said. “You’re seeing a shift toward lower-cut styles and different color iterations with unique looks.”

Under Armour’s basketball shoes — especially for its three-time NBA All-Star Stephen Curry — have been a hit.

Under Armour Curry Two All Star
Under Armour Curry Two "All Star."
CREDIT: Courtesy of Under Armour

“We’re a year into the Steph Curry signature product, and last year at this time, sell-through was good, but on
a small number of pairs,” said Jeff Morrell, SVP and GMM at Finish Line. “This year, sell-through is still good, but on significantly more pairs in the marketplace than we had last year.”

Under Armour’s 4Q footwear net revenue soared 95 percent, to $167 million, from the prior year, said the brand’s outgoing COO and CFO, Bradley James Dickerson, during UA’s fourth-quarter 2015 earnings conference call in January — with the Curry Two as its leading shoe.

“[Curry] gets us into basketball, which is a major category for us, and it gives us a halo in all footwear — it gives us credibility,” said Peter Ruppe, SVP of Under Armour Footwear. “With the cultural significance of basketball and the way it has a halo into lifestyle, we believe Steph has been a great way for us to open some avenues.”

The Baltimore-based athletic brand has no plans to slow its pipeline of Curry releases. Ruppe confirmed that Under Armour has four more Curry Two mid colorways slated to hit stores after the All-Star Game for the playoff push, and it will also release six colorways of a low-cut version of the shoe.

Curry isn’t the only player driving basketball sales for retailers. In fact, the player whose signature product is moving the most units universally for independent and chain retailers hasn’t hit the court professionally in more than a decade.

Air Jordan 4 Retro Cement
A look at the Air Jordan 4 Retro "Cement."
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

“[Michael] Jordan retros are easily the best-selling shoes in [Renarts],” Amin said. “Nothing compares with his retros that drop every month; they get 100 percent sell-through within 30 days of release. There were 25 or 27 models released last year, and I hardly have one or two remaining from those days.”

Nike and its Jordan Brand label still hold the top spot for basketball-shoe consumers.

The Beaverton, Ore.-based athletic giant accounted for 93 percent of basketball-shoe sales in 2015, according to data compiled by SportsOneSource. Under Armour was a distant second, taking 4 percent of the market, and Adidas was third, with 2.5 percent.

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