Thursday 22 August 2019

Crossfit to be the centre of a new sneaker war

Rope-climbing is a feature of Crossfit gyms
Rope-climbing is a feature of Crossfit gyms

Kyle Stock

As a consumer, Steven Pokk shares some rarefied company. Like basketball legends Shaquille O'Neal, Dee Brown, and Allen Iverson, Pokk owns 15 pairs of Reebok sneakers.

But the adidas-owned brand has fallen far since its heyday on NBA courts in the 1980s and 1990s. In a bid to rebound, it signed a 10-year deal in 2011 to be the official sportswear brand of Crossfit, then a budding workout regimen that mixes a range of fitness strategies, from weights and rowing machines to running and callisthenics. It was a savvy move for a company desperate to stay relevant.

At the time, Pokk, a 33-year-old personal trainer in New York, was just getting into the Crossfit craze. With purpose-built sneakers and a standing 15pc discount, Reebok made him a brand evangelist, one of its first since all those basketball greats from the 1990s.

In late 2014, Pokk and a couple of buddies opened their own Crossfit gym (or "box," as the vernacular goes): Crossfit Kingsboro in Brooklyn, New York. A month later, adidas arch-enemy Nike quietly began selling its first trainer for the Crossfit crowd, the Metcon. Pokk rushed out and bought a pair. He now owns eight iterations, wearing them to the gym, walking his dogs and, well, all the time. "I'm wearing them right now," he said, as he left on a vacation to Australia.

As Nike battles adidas for a slice of the global football boot market and tries to fend off Under Armour on basketball courts, it's quietly edging into a multi-billion dollar category that could have far greater impact on the future of the sneaker market. Reebok, meanwhile, is trying to hang onto share in the one place where it presciently decided to plant its flag.

Nike declined to answer questions for this article, citing a quiet period in advance of its earnings report on December 20. And Reebok said there was no reliable way to gauge market-share in the Crossfit community, so we at Bloomberg decided to do a small survey of our own. We dropped in on classes at five gyms to see what people were wearing to work out. In this admittedly unscientific survey, Nike had won over slightly half of the Crossfit crowd, Reebok had a bit more than a one-quarter share, and the remainder was split among such smaller running specialists like Asics, and cross-training start-ups like No Bull.

Make no mistake, the spoils of winning this workout battle will be huge. "It's become the fastest-growing fitness property in the world," said Reebok president Matt O'Toole.

How fast exactly? There are now about 8,000 Crossfit gyms in the US and an additional 4,000 or so abroad. In them, sweaty masses run through one-hour sessions designed to build overall fitness with stretching, weights, and low-impact body movements. It's a proprietary programme, but requires little in the way of gear or technical training. As such, thousands of gyms offer Crossfit-like training, but don't bother to pay the €2,800 or so a year to license the Crossfit name.

Reebok's O'Toole became a Crossfit junkie himself before approaching the company about sponsorship. "I remember thinking, 'Hey, this is the future: community, fitness, and this very dynamic approach to working out,'" he said.

Like any trendy, new club, Crossfit presents its fans with a critical decision: what to wear. On the apparel side, the answers are easy. But footwear is trickier, because the regime is so varied. Sure, there's a little bit of running and a little bit of weightlifting. But there's also a breadth of activities designed to get bodies in awkward positions. On any given day, a Crossfitter might be asked to crawl like a bear, jump rope, carry an empty beer keg, or walk up a wall into a handstand. Sure, running requires cushioning, and basketball demands ankle support. But what are the correct shoes for climbing a rope or swinging a kettle-bell?

"When we started in 2011, right away we saw there was not a proper shoe for this activity," O'Toole said.

Billed as "the first official Crossfit shoe," Reebok's Nano was a strange bit of rubber alchemy - cushioned enough for a run but flat enough to make a sturdy weight-lifting platform. Meanwhile, the soles were flexible and the upper was tough.

Reebok was already selling its fourth iteration of the Nano when Nike quietly released the Metcon. Where the Reebok was wrapped in a grid of thick, rubbery plastic, the Metcon was more spartan. With little marketing effort, they sold out quickly. "They fit well, they moved better than the Nano, and they weren't as boxy feeling," said Pokk, the trainer. "And it looked more like just a shoe, where Reebok was basically posterizing its brand all over the Nano."

A little more than a year later, Nike showed off its second effort, the Metcon 2. This time it made more of them and offered 16 different colour patterns. Pokk said about two-thirds of the people in his Crossfit gym now wear shoes with swooshes, a number mirrored by our small sneaker survey.

Though Nike appears to be making great strides, the market is still relatively young and very much up for grabs. Nike has been busy crowing about its new college football uniforms. But if its prior release schedule is any guide, the company is also putting the finishing touches on a Metcon 3.

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