Buzz in the shoe industry is usually reserved for the hottest basketball sneaker that debuts on the feet of players like LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson. But on the heels of the NBA season, two running shoes are expected to dominate the scene in the coming months.
They are both being pitched to the American buying public as the latest in technology.
One shoe weighs as much as a bag of potato chips, is good for about 60 miles and costs $45. The other, priced at $250, is arguably the most high-tech shoe ever built. It is complete with a computer microchip and operating system that analyzes a runner's step and starts making cushioning adjustments in the heel of the shoe based on the runner's impact with the particular terrain after just three steps.
Adidas officials are confident their computerized shoe, dubbed the Adidas 1, can be sold to the mass market, with pairs hitting stores in December. Nike doesn't believe its Mayfly is for the majority of runners. Accordingly, the disposable shoes will hit stores this week, but will only be available in an extremely limited release that sources have pegged at around 5,000 nationwide.
On May 6, when adidas announced its plans to produce the 1, its Web site crashed from the traffic and retailers lit up the phones. In the 24 hours after the launch, company officials say the shoe was featured on 186 television broadcasts throughout the world.
News of the Mayfly release in America is also expected to cause a stir. After the shoe's air-bubbled foam has worn down, its wearers can send the shoes back to Nike in a self-addressed stamped envelope. The shoe giant will recycle the material to make rubber athletic courts and tracks.
Despite having all the elements of well-executed public relations campaigns, officials with both companies insist that the Adidas 1 and the Mayfly aren't gimmicks, citing their historical roots as the driving force behind their innovations.
Adidas founder Adi Dassler, who made his first pair of running shoes in 1920, founded the company on the premise that each athlete should have a pair of shoes that is made to fit him or her best.
In adidas' 1, foot impact is measured through a proprietary piece of software on the shoe's microcomputer, which then instantaneously analyzes data in real time and immediately begins making adjustments tailored to that runner's step.
Nike's Mayfly was inspired by the ideal set forth by Nike founder Bill Bowerman, who envisioned a shoe that would provide enough support for a runner during a race, but would fall apart once that runner crossed the finish line. The 62-mile recommended lifespan of the Mayfly, which is named after the insect whose adult life span can last as short as five minutes, is mostly meant for a runner who plans to use it for a summer full of 5 kilometer (3.1 miles) races. A warning card in the shoe cautions the runner not to wear the shoes longer than 62 miles, though the shoes won't exactly disintegrate if a runner exceeds that mileage.
The shoe weighs 4.8 ounces -- roughly one-third the weight of a normal running shoe. The feat is accomplished thanks to having no padding or shocks and a casing made out of the light cloth used to make parachutes. Nike officials say the lighter weight allows for a one-percent increase in efficiency over the course of a race, which could result in precious seconds in a short race or a two-minute time difference to a runner who usually runs a marathon in three hours and 20 minutes.
Despite the constant public focus on the latest and greatest in basketball shoes, running shoes actually outsold basketball shoes in 2003, making up 28 percent of the $16 billion market, compared to 23.3 percent for the basketball variety, according to The NPD Group, a market retail tracking firm.
That's why developing authenticity with runners is important to brands like Nike and adidas.
"The people that are going to buy this shoe are the early adopters who are also runners," said Christian DiBenedetto of the adidas innovation team, which took three years to invent the shoe. "They are the same people who had to have the Blackberry first or the LCD TVs."
Adidas officials claim the shoe can take up to 20,000 readings and make 10,000 calculations per second.
DiBenedetto said the price tag for the shoe -- which needs a new battery after 100 hours of use (don't worry, that's about 600 miles) -- isn't expected to be a major issue for the hardcore running consumer.
"We are offering runners the opportunity to own one pair of shoes for every running environment," DiBenedetto said of a market where runners could buy different pairs of shoes depending on what surface they are running on. "People are actually excited and amazed that it only costs $250."
Nike will likely get more buzz from the Mayfly than profits. Officials candidly admit the shoe is not for everyone; therefore, the production run is limited. The shoe's short lifespan, which is one-tenth the average life of a normal running shoe, cuts down the amount of time runners can train with the shoe before running a big race and the minimal support might not be enough for runners with larger frames.
"We don't want it to be on a lot of people," said Tony Bignell, Nike's director of strategic value. "This is a kind of shoe that should be prescribed to you."
"There's this perception that Nike wants to sell everything to the masses, but they are definitely marketing this responsibly," said Thom Burleson, owner of the Athletic Annex Running Center in Indianapolis, one of the running specialty stores that received a shipment of Mayfly's last week. Burleson said he would only recommend that extremely experienced runners with good form run long races in the shoes.
Nike officials also don't foresee any issue with the price tag, although the shoes cost 72 cents a mile.
"The person who will buy this shoe will be the same person who is taking the energy gel packet at the right time during the race and spends a lot of time thinking about every aspect of running," Bignell said.
That also means that there won't be many Mayfly purchasers returning the shoes when they are done with the big race, despite Nike's pledge to be environmentally conscious and the free postage attached. The shoe has a grid on the side to fill in the date and the location of the race.
Said Bignell: "When they came out in Europe, the envelopes were marked to come right back to my desk, and I didn't get one pair back."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org