Nike running, where do they go from here? Commentary by Larry Eder

updated May 27: Sales figures of Nike..

On May 20, 2010, Nike announced strategic changes within their management team. In one of their largest and most observed categories, running, Leslie Lane, who had been VP of Global Running for nearly four years, moved to the Nike Foundation. Jayme Martin, one of the top movers and shakers at Nike, recently in emerging markets, took over as VP of Global Running.

Leslie Lane should be complemented for not only lasting as long as he did, but for making a
a so-called "virtual position" a notable position within Nike. That was no mean feat. While Lane would never admit it, his earlier role, where he successfully moved Converse into the Nike fold, was probably, in retrospect, an easy run, compared to his battles in the running wars. And those battles were mostly within Nike. 

 As the VP of Global Running, Jayme Martin is in one of the most visible roles at Nike, Inc. Running is one of Nike's largest business units, and yet, running is treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of footwear at the world's largest sports footwear & apparel company...


Nike announced strategic changes in their management team on May 20, 2010, early in the afternoon, Pacific time. The press release, found on www.nikebiz.com, announced that Leslie Lane, the VP of Global of Running, was going to become a VP at the Nike foundation. Jayme Martin, a thirteen year veteran of Nike, (most recently in emerging markets), will become the new VP of Global Running.

Nike does a bit over $2.1 billion a year in running product (out of a $19.4 billion a year business). Most of the business in running is in the $65 and under business, with performance running (Bowerman line), and the new global success, Nike Lunar series getting much acclaim.

It seems that the running business at Nike has had many of the most creative people on the Nike campus. But, in many ways, while working in running at Nike, and being one of the  top running footwear talents in the world, should guarantee a charmed life, for most, it is just the opposite. The life span of Nike running talent is short. That fact alone should be the focus of some introspection, but the zeitgeist seems to be, that there are always more talented shoe people out there, and hell, it is only running! 

Some of the best running people on the planet are ex-Nike running people, managing the brands of most of Nike's major competitors. Nike, a company whose name came in a dream to an employee, then living above a funeral home, a company that was founded on selling running shoes out of the back of car, a company that was founded on being true to the running culture, a company that was bred to respect the sweat and toil that came from training to run one's best, and a company that had it's original Nike shoes being shipped in embalming fluid boxes, is now in its third generation of management. Many on the Nike campus do not understand the mind of the runner nor see it's value. Few understand the importance of the mantra, "selling one pair of shoes at a time."  

Yet, the Nike running team fights the good fight. The Lunar series and the most recent Bowerman product has been some of the best running product in recent memory from Nike. Unfortunately, top Nike product is not promoted in core running circles, but to those considering their first run, and those who want to look cool. The funny thing is, fitness pretenders wear performance running shoes, because they are "real" or authentic. What makes a brand authentic? Real or core runners use the product.  

The truth is, non-active types are the majority of the running market. The conundrum is that, many in the Nike campus do not appreciate the importance of running footwear or running staffers to Nike's continued growth. While the words are used and said that Nike is a running company at its core, real running initiatives are buried in layer after layer of bureaucratic detritus.

And yet, running loyalists continue to fight the good fight in Beaverton. Dialed-in track spikes, racing shoes, the 13th version of the Air Structure Triax and 26th verison of the Pegasus make a real shoe geek cry. How do they do it? There is something in the water, in the air on campus, and perhaps it is in the struggle, in these fights by true believers, that keeps Nike running churning out, for much of the time, very good product.

In a recent video interview for Fast Company, Nikes' CEO Mark Parker related a phone call from Apple's Steve Jobs. Jobs told Parker that Nike "makes some really great product and also some crappy product, Nike's challenge is to stop making crap and only make great product." 

The challenge for Jayme Martin, new VP of Running, is how to stand strong, defending the needs for real runners to be involved in developing and marketing running product, without getting marginalized. It is also knowing who to reach out to, who to trust, and who to champion. While the running business can use innovation and new ideas, runners, new and old, are creatures of habit, and some things just do not, well, pass the 'smell test'. Nike AIr, Nike Free, Nike mid-sole technology all came from running. Nike running needs to get credit for the innovation that it brings to the Nike campus and Nike running people need to be valued, not shipped around, like a crate of beans.

In 2010, there are, at least, thirty-five brands that sell and promote running and trail product. It has seemed that everyone and his brother is coming out with a running shoe. This is the conundrum--if making and selling great running shoes were that easy, they why do so many of the new companies struggle? The present status of the performance running footwear business is such that good is not good enough: great shoes wither and die without proper support.
 
The performance running footwear business is a minefield, just waiting for a brand to blow up. We see them all of the time. Under Armour's first footwear line was the cause of some conjecture. After two years of struggling, UA regrouped and are trying to do it right. Running footwear may look easy, but its' not. There are only a roomful of people in the world who can build great running shoes. That is probably why, brands with long lived teams tend to do well, and brands who do not focus, whither and die.  

If one had watched Chris Solinsky running the 10,000 meters at the Payton Jordan Invitational on May 1, 2010, one would have been fascinated with the ease and the brutality of elite distance racing. The final pack of four ran together for several miles. After twenty-three laps of running 63-64 seconds a lap, Solinsky looked relaxed, heck, he looked like he was running easy. Au contraire, mes amis. Afterwards, Solinsky told RBR that he was feeling rough from lap 12 to lap 23, he was taking it one lap at a time. For Solinsky to get to that place, where he could run a sub two minutes over the last 800 meters and break the American record, he had trained since he was fourteen years old, over twelve years of his life. He has one of the best coaches in the world, best training facilities in the world and he is driven. Like all competitive athletes, Chris Solinsky wants to see what he can achieve. In high school, as a senior, Solinsky impressed me, watching him at a small relay meet run a 1.54 for the 800, 4:13 for the mile and a 47 point 400 meters. A keen observer knew he was one of the potential great ones, but he needed nurturing. If he had not run at Wisconsin under Jerry Schumacher, if he had not joined the Oregon Project, would he have broken the American record? I find it doubtful. Little things, the details matter. 

In the act of running, like the act of making a great running shoe, time, experience, support, and a great team are key. It will be fascinating to see what the new round of changes at Nike
does to the making of great running footwear and apparel. In the end, it is all about human capital. No more, no less.

 
 

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