THE RISE OF THE SNEAKERHEAD CULTURE
The sports sneaker market is a cultural playground where sports, hip-hop, and luxury meet. The market has grown substantially over the last five years, progressing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.1%. Read on to learn why sneakerheads are an ideal market for premium brands to study and target.
What is the athletic footwear market?
The athletic footwear market refers to the retail market for aerobic shoes, running shoes, walking shoes, hiking shoes, and sports shoes. Athletic shoe sales are projected to continue to grow over the next five years due to numerous factors, including the growing middle-class population and consumer demand for wellness, and workout products. Research by the market research from Grand View Research, Inc. estimates the footwear market will be worth 95.14 billion USD by 2025.
While sports and fashion brands primarily own the sneaker industry, premium brands, particularly auto, travel, and banking firms, can also benefit from targeting the cash-rich sneakerhead consumer segment. The target audience for athleisure products is mostly Millennials and Generation Z consumers who see sneakers as status symbols. However, wealthy Gen X’s who grew up with Jordan are also big sneakerheads.
What’s the size of the athletic footwear market?
Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst, and the vice president of NPD Group, is widely respected as an authority on the sports retail market.
He says growth from the sports industry has pivoted from athletic wear (leggings, track pants and workout gear) to sports leisure footwear. "Now we're in a period where there's not a single performance category—not running, not basketball, not training, not even hiking—that is trending positively. All of the growth we are getting out of the industry is coming from what we would call sports lifestyle or sport leisure footwear," says Powell.
According to figures from the sports industry news site SportsOneSource, the international market for athletic sportswear is estimated to be worth in the region of 55 billion in a year (that’s about the size of the GDP of Kenya according to the Financial Times).
What does it mean to be a sneakerhead?
A sneakerhead is someone who collects, trades and or admires sneakers as a hobby. Generally, sneakerheads are well-versed in the history of sneakers and study the market carefully. If you present them with a pair of sneakers, they can tell you their value, make and history. Sneakerheads first emerged in North America, but they're now a global phenomenon.
What is the history of sneakerhead culture?
The demand for trendy athletic footwear most distinctly emerged in the 1970s when Farrah Fawcett’s iconic aerobic wear inspired the masses to buy athletic tights, headbands, and sneakers.
As Americans started jogging and working out for fun, athletic wear became more accessible and trendier says Nick Smith, the author of the book "Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers." "You saw magazines like People with provocative titles like, 'Everyone's Doing It.' Time magazine and Newsweek featured people jogging and doing aerobics, holding up pictures of their old, less fit selves…. It was the first time in history when ordinary people were doing these things," said Smith in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine.
While aerobic culture kick-started the demand for athletic shoes in the 1970s, sneakerhead culture truly exploded in the 1980s when Nike signed a historic deal with an emerging star: Michael Jordan, the third overall draft pick for the Chicago Bulls.
Nike’s iconic black and red Air Jordan 1 sneaker was released in 1985 for $65. Ironically the unique shoes did not meet the NBA's dress code, and Jordan wasn't allowed to wear them on the courts: however, he decided to wear them anyway.
When Jordan was fined $5000 for wearing them, Nike decided to brilliantly pay the fine — a smart marketing opportunity that paid off. Later that year, Jordan went on to win Rookie of the Year, the Air Jordan shoes went on to sell out, and the rest is history.
Today the Air Jordan line is synonymous with basketball culture and hip hop. Jordans have become more than just shoes; they're a status global symbol and emblem of sneaker culture.
Hip hop culture is another critical factor that has amplified the sneaker culture.
In the 1980s, sportswear and hip-hop culture collided when the hip-hop group Run DMC released their groundbreaking track, "My Adidas." The song was a hit, not just because the rappers were talking about sneakers. It represented a paradigm shift in hip hop fashion — for the first time, rappers' clothing reflected the style of the streets and the basketball courts. The rise of hip-hop stars rocking brand name sneakers coincided with the arrival of basketball legend Michael Jordan's signature Nike Air Jordan 1 and together, these factors catalyzed a street style young people across the world could reference.
Digital Sneakerheads: Why brands can now capitalize on sneaker culture
A decade ago, writing about sneakers on the Internet was in its fledgling stage. Sites such as Hypebeast, Highsnobiety, and Sneaker Freaker had tapped the market with their respective streetwear blogs, but the market remained underserved.
During that era, influencers didn't exist, brands were still focused on athletes telling their stories, and the business of sneaker collaborations with athletes and retailers didn't exist either.
There were only a few people who were trusted to give opinions and cultural context on why sneakers mattered.
Sneaker "culture," for lack of a better word, was an insider's club that emphasized people being there to understand and appreciate the right shoes. You had to watch Michael Jordan play in his Air Forces. You had to wear Air Force 1s before Nelly put them in a song. You had to own Nike SB Dunks before the brand designed an "SB" box.
You couldn't just study up on the latest sneakers. Not because there were very few places to read about it, but because your whole credibility was predicated on you taking part in these moments during a time that could — and never will be — replicated.
Today, that's all changed. Sites such as Hypebeast have created an online community for people to swap sneaker news and shoes. These websites create a prime opportunity for branded partnerships and advertising opportunities.
Based on research conducted via the social measurement tool Shareablee, entertainment celebrities (especially rappers), basketball athletes and media companies are the primary forces shaping and promoting sneaker culture.
The media landscape for sneakerheads
Media companies, including GQ, Complex, HYPEBEAST, and Highsnobiety, tend to have a global reach and cover sneaker news, in addition to a wide variety of topics such as pop culture, hip hop and fashion. There are also numerous properties dedicated exclusively to sneakers, such as Sneaker News, a site for hardcore sneaker fans.
Most of these media companies that produce sneaker content have uniquely tailored content strategies that include original series, branded content, original documentaries, celebrity collaborations, insider interviews, and other unique content offerings.
The Bottom Line
Sneaker culture is far from a fleeting trend. Over the years, collecting sneakers has become a global phenomenon that consumers are willing to bet big on — shelling out upwards of $20,000 on limited-edition shoes. Smart brands may be wise to capitalize on sneaker culture as the industry is poised to grow exponentially in the next decade.