The Boston Marathon is quickly approaching in less than a month, which will attract roughly 500,000 spectators—easily New England’s most widely viewed sporting event. Always held on Patriots’ Day, it is hard to fathom that the world’s oldest annual marathon began in 1897 with a grand total of only 18 participants.
And with the marathon comes much chatter of various fitness trends, running tips and training secrets. But what many Bostonians may be unaware of is that our fair city is home to four of the world’s leading sports footwear manufacturers, each with a unique history of its own.
New Balance, originally founded as New Balance Arch Support Company, launched as a private company in Brighton, Massachusetts in 1906. It was founded by William J. Riley and began as a company that only manufactured arch supports and orthopedic shoes. New Balance’s first product, a flexible arch support, was designed with three support points—a concept which Riley took from observing chickens in his yard after he noticed their three-clawed feet resulted in perfect balance.
The company made its first shoe, “The Trackster,” in 1960, which was the world’s first running shoe to come in varying widths and made with a ripple sole. New Balance strived for excellence, and while it earned a solid reputation from its customers, it remained a small, Northeastern enterprise for decades. Even as late as 1972, New Balance consisted of only 5 employees making 30 pairs of shoes a day.
On the day of the 1972 Boston Marathon, current Chairman Jim Davis bought the company for $100,000. Davis looked to expand New Balance into a global company. With the era of recreational jogging exploding in the mid-70’s, sales grew rapidly at New Balance and its product line expanded extensively. Incredibly, in less than 40 years, New Balance transformed itself from a company of 5 employees selling primarily through mail order to a corporation of more than 4,000 employees—one of the largest makers of sports footwear in the world.
The current Boston headquarters is located at 20 Guest Street, near the Massachusetts Turnpike in Brighton. The company has recently released detailed plans for a new world headquarters to be built atop the currently existing structure in Brighton. The construction, which is expected to begin this year, will include a $500 million real estate development over 14 acres as well as a commuter rail station.
Converse Rubber Shoe Company was established in Malden, Massachusetts by Marquis Mills Converse. Converse published a catalogue in 1913 that emphasized its core philosophy. It read, “Our company was organized in 1908 fully believing that there was an earnest demand from the retail sneaker dealer for a rubber sneaker company that would be independent enough not to follow every other company in every thing they do.”
In 1917, the company took a chance on a game that hadn’t reached popularity in the sports world yet—and that sport goes by the name of basketball. After crafting an elite shoe for the professional basketball league, Converse and basketball became practically synonymous. The company began sponsoring a team named The Converse All Stars, a team that just so happened to possess the legendary player Charles “Chuck” Taylor. Taylor became a salesman and athlete for the company, which lent to the creation of a shoe that’s still in style today: The Chuck Taylor All Stars. By the 1960’s, more than 90% of professional and college basketball players were wearing Chucks.
Throughout the years, Converse evolved into a shoe that represented a wide range of cultures. When World War II came along, the company began to manufacture a scope of products for servicemen overseas including boots, parkas, and rubber protective suits. Decade by decade, the Chuck Taylor All Stars became the footwear of choice for a variety of groups. The rise of the grunge era in the 1980’s allowed Converse to broaden its horizons from solely athletic-wear to casual footwear.
Celebrating the spirit of originality and rebellion not only in sports but also in humanity as a whole, Converse continues to be welcomed into the lives of many. As of today more than 800 million pairs of chucks have been sold, and are the best selling basketball shoe of all time. 60% of Americans have owned at least one pair of chucks over a span of more than 80 years.
After a decade at its current headquarters located in North Andover, Converse recently announced that the brand would relocate to a larger headquarters in Greater Boston in April 2015. Owned by Nike since 2003, the company plans to occupy more than 186,000 square feet of space in a two-story building across from the TD Garden.
In mid-2011, Converse opened a state-of-the-art recording studio in Brooklyn, NY. Called Converse Rubber Tracks, it’s there to provide musicians with free high-quality studio time. Always invested in originality, the company hopes to be “a catalyst for creativity” for the NY music scene and give back to the community through inspiration.
If it weren’t for a bitter rivalry between brothers, there is a pretty good chance that neither Puma nor Adidas would exist today. In the 1920’s, brothers Adolf (nicknamed Adi) and Rudolph Dassler began a shoemaking business together in the little-known town of Herzogenaurach, West Germany. The Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory began making shoes in their mother’s laundry room, and was powered at times by riding a stationary bike hooked up to their equipment.
After constantly fighting about everything from the future of the company to the wives they’d selected, the two eventually parted ways. Adi went on to create Adidas in the plant they once shared, and Rudolf officially set up a rival shop across the river on October 1, 1948. For a short time, Rudolf’s company was named Ruda. He quickly changed it to Puma, the Spanish word for cougar. It was formally named PUMA Schuhfabrik Rudolf Dassler [Rudolph Dassler shoe factory].
Puma was the first sports shoe manufactured to utilize advanced durability production technology. The same year it was founded, Puma launched its first football boot: the “ATOM.” The company’s focus on innovative techniques, technological improvements, and fashionable utility has endured throughout the years.
The brand has graced the feet of some of the most legendary athletes in history. Such icons include footballers Lothar Matthäus and Diego Maradonna, New York Knicks basketball player Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and track star Usain Bolt. At the opening whistle of the 1970 World cup finals match, Pelé—widely considered to be the greatest soccer player of all time—knelt down to tie the laces of his Pumas. Upon request of a Puma representative, this move gave millions a close-up view of the brand. For wearing the shoes, Pelé was handsomely rewarded with the sizeable figure of $120,000.
Today, PUMA distributes in more than 120 countries and employs more than 9,000 people worldwide. The brand blends influences of sport, lifestyle and fashion, a fusion christened “Sportlifestyle.” The Boston headquarters is located downtown at 1 Congress Street. At PUMA’s retail store on 333 Newbury Street, there is a live DJ set every Saturday and Sunday.
Joseph William Foster established Reebok for one fundamental reason: to make athletes run faster. He created the world’s first spiked running shoes in 1890, handcrafting them for an elite clientele of international athletes. In 1895, Foster expanded his UK-based shoemaking company into a family-owned business, titling the brand J.W. Foster and Sons. It was not until 1958 that Foster’s grandsons, Joe and Jeff, renamed the company Reebok. The name was inspired by the Dutch word “rhebok,” a type of African gazelle.
Reebok jumped into the US market in 1979 after being acquired by sporting goods distributor Paul Fireman. At $60 a pair, the company was selling the most expensive running shoes at the time. In 1982, Reebok introduced the first athletic shoe for women, “The Freestyle.” To this day it is still Reebok’s best selling shoe. Reebok ultimately created a name as an industry leader by focusing on three major growing trends: the aerobic exercise movement, the influx of women in sports, and street culture casual wear.
Reebok launched the Rbk line in 2002. Inspired by street fashion and geared toward a hip-hop crowd, the line featured big name athletes and prominent musicians. With the “S. Carter Collection by Rbk,” Jay-Z became the first non-athlete to have a signature athletic footwear collection. Later on, 50 Cent teamed up with Reebok for the “G Unit Collection by Rbk.”
Later on in the 2000’s, Reebok began a transition from a company primarily aligned with general fitness to a company associated with a variety of sports. By 2006, it had partnered with the NFL, the NBA, the WNBA, the NHL, and the MLB to manufacture a range of merchandise for both teams and fans. With the acquisition of The Hockey Company in 2004, Reebok became the world’s leading producer of hockey apparel and equipment.
In January 2006, Adidas acquired Reebok. Shortly after this purchase was made, CEO Paul Fireman announced his decision to leave, turning the company over to Paul Harrington. As of recent, Reebok’s latest fitness venture has been its involvement with one of the biggest exercise programs of our time: CrossFit. In Boston, there are two Reebok CrossFit locations in Back Bay. Additionally, the Reebok World Headquarters is in Canton, Massachusetts.