Footwear Trends: Stepping Into the Future
New performance elements, introduced in categories such as running and basketball, are likely to emerge in the tennis-shoe market, too.
By Bob McGee
Over the last three decades, there have been peaks and valleys in the development of performance features for athletic shoes, including those used in tennis. Current trends suggest much is under foot for this year, 2014 and beyond. However, tennis enthusiasts should consider that today’s major athletic brands are more likely to introduce and consumer-land their significant performance-enhancement features in larger athletic categories such as running and basketball before they are adapted for the smaller, specialized performance tennis-shoe market.
Still, it won’t be long before tennis players are likely to see the availability of lighter shoes made with new, breathable materials and simpler upper constructions that also better secure the foot and address high-stress areas during play. Developers are more cognizant about the need to deliver high-performance tennis models with highly durable uppers and reinforced areas.
Nike, for example, introduced Flyknit for elite and everyday athletes in February 2012, but isn’t yet prepared to say when, or if, the technology will debut in a tennis shoe. Flyknit, in development for many years, utilizes a manufacturing innovation that reduces weight and improves fit through a shoe that behaves like a second skin, adapting to the shape of the foot in motion. Additionally, a Flyknit woven upper is said to reduce manufacturing waste by two-thirds in performance running shoes.
Further down the shoe, new, lighter but stable cushioning materials are being introduced and developed for midsoles to ensure a “better overall ride” no matter the type of court surface. Adidas, for example, is preparing to expand its Boost cushioning foam, designed to maximize energy return for the runner, into additional athletic shoe categories in the seasons ahead after its February global debut in a running shoe. The cushioning material was developed by the German company’s exclusive partner, chemical maker BASF, which literally blew up a solid granular material called TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) and turned it into thousands of small energy capsules for use in the shoe’s midsole.
Built to Order?
Customization, via 3-D printing technology, is being explored by several brands in their respective quests to build outsoles to order, so to speak, by creating them around the digital model of an athlete’s foot. This technology will first be introduced in the performance running-shoe segment sometime over the next five years, by New Balance for one, and could eventually be adapted for the tennis pro shop customer looking for that ultimate fit on a specific court surface.
All of these developments don’t even take into account how technology might come into play in the tennis footwear of the future. Already, runners of all performance levels have the ability to measure their distance and speed with a Nike+ pod inserted beneath the midsole of certain shoe models and tracked on an iPhone. A year ago, the company also introduced a basketball and cross-training shoe with a sensor on the bottom that communicates data to an iPhone on how high the individual is jumping or how fast he or she is moving. This sensor technology capability could eventually find itself in an intelligent tennis shoe.
In March, Under Armour launched a digital performance monitoring system called Armour39 that the company says will provide a single score WILLpower measurement of 0.0 to 10.0 that reflects an individual’s overall effort during a workout. Additionally, Armour39 monitoring will track heart rate, calories burned and intensity via a specialized watch or wearable module and strap.
Of course, market analysts caution that most of this performance tech gadgetry, where the athlete can measure or track certain metrics, isn’t for everyone and is currently largely relegated to only top-notch athletes. But as these technologies are improved and manufacturer costs for them are reduced, they will get pushed into more mainstream products.
Refocusing to Stay Relevant
With an increasingly competitive landscape in the performance tennis-shoe market among the broader athletic brands such as Nike, Adidas, Asics and New Balance, specialized court-shoe brands have been forced to regroup and refocus to stay relevant.
Head, for example, got back into the tennis-shoe category through its own development efforts, not a licensing deal, four years ago. The Austrian company, under the direction of a seasoned product development that came from another major brand, is promising a dramatically overhauled collection of tennis shoes for 2014 that will begin delivery in January. Since the new line won’t be introduced to Head’s sales team until late August before the US Open, the company is hesitant to offer up details about the specific changes.
Asics, the Japanese heritage athletic brand that cut its teeth in the performance running market, has staked a more significant claim in the tennis-shoe market over the last two years by adding a fashion-forwardness, via color, to its performance court shoes. The effort, says a competitor, has enabled Asics to lift the retail price range of its tennis-shoe offerings. Meanwhile, Prince is said to be working on a number of new developments after a long, successful run with its T22 shoe in the pro specialty channel.
Bob McGee is the editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a leading business/financial newsletter on the sporting goods industry. He first began covering developments in the athletic footwear industry in 1987.