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Behind the Hype: What the Olympics Really Mean for Athletic Footwear

Few events still bring eyeballs to television screens better than the Olympics, and no one knows this more than advertisers. The 2012 Summer Games in London were the most watched event in U.S. television history, and with the 2016 Games set for Brazil this summer, all eyes will once again return to feats of athletic excellence, and, of course, to the logos of the world’s most popular brands.

For the footwear industry, sporting events have always gone hand-in-hand with their products. Giants like Nike and Adidas design new shoes and updated technologies specifically with athletes in mind, and schedule new product releases to coincide with the games.

But when it comes down to it, do the Olympic Games really influence what consumers buy? Well, sort of. The answer is that brands do typically see sales boosts from the Games, but not immediately.

“We typically see a lift with the Olympics, but [for the performance sector] it will be more of a 2017 event than it will be a 2016 event,” said Matt Powell, vice president and sports industry analyst for the The NPD Group.

The reason for this is that while brands advertise heavily during the Olympics, the shoes actually released during the Games are mostly special or limited edition varieties, meant to showcase a new technology or built to latch onto the popularity of a sponsored athlete.

“What happens is the brands all hold new technologies back in order to introduce them at the Olympics, so that the athletes can showcase the products to a worldwide audience,” said Powell. “They never really make commercial amounts of products for these events. They’re usually relatively small runs. Brands like the shoes to sell out so they can create hype around that.”

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As these new shoes are generally quite limited, most people settle for styles that are already widely-available on the market. From a retail perspective, stores may see more of an immediate boost than brands. Stores Vamp spoke with reported at least a small increase in sales during Olympic years, driven by people inspired to become more active after watching the games, or by in-store events.

“We expect an increase in sales as a result of the Olympic year,” said Brian Jacobson, manager of Achilles Running Shop. “We forecast a sales increase between 3-5% in July, leading up to the Olympic month, and a sales increase between 6-8% in August during the Olympic month based off prior Olympic year sales. This increase in sales can be largely attributed to any in-store events, watch parties, or group runs revolving around Track and Field in the Olympics. Additionally, we see an increase in “first timers” or people who are “getting back into it” that are motivated by the events. ”

In 2012, both Nike and Adidas debuted knit fabric running shoes which would later grow into their popular Flyknit and Primeknit lines respectively. So while the initial hype for Olympic shoes may die down with the end of the Games, for the brands, these become valuable properties they can continue to sell to consumers in subsequent years.

“It’s going to be more about hype and marketing than it is about sales,” said Powell.

Brooks, for instance, will use its natural connection with running athletics to help debut its new spike technology, which will later be used in products targeted towards the mass market.

“Each year our athletes unveil a new racing uniform, and 2016 is even more special as we will also debut our new 3 ELMN8 spike and Hyperion racer. These products are athlete driven from the concept phase to the final product,” said Jesse Williams, sports marketing manager for Brooks. “The new ELMN8 spikes were crafted with the help of two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds who wore a prototype of the spike in his 2015 U.S. championship race in the 800-meter run. His teammate Cas Loxsom also tested a prototype of the future spike when he broke the 600-meter run Indoor American Record last year. These collaborations push product teams to innovate to meet the athletes’ needs. In turn, these innovations then find a way into the rest of the Brooks product line in future models that will enhance the run for runners everywhere.”

For 2016, eyes will also be on Nike to unveil new technologies, possibly related to their Flyknit shoes. The company issued two patents at the end of last year: one for a new smart sneaker and another for a computer-based program to be used for the customization of footwear and, specifically, their Flyknit sneakers.

With sales of athletic footwear up for 2015, and athleisure still a dominant trend heading into Rio, this year’s games could prove to be just the platform footwear brands are looking for to drum up sales. Unlike in other sports-related categories however, such as in basketball, where entire brands are crafted around celebrity athletes, the window around Olympic athletes is much shorter, and so Olympic sponsorships are largely a name-game rather than a numbers game.

“It’s going to be more about hype and marketing than it is about sales,” said Powell. “I think it’s the cumulative effect of seeing the logo on television over a couple of weeks that really matters.”

The Olympics not only provide one of the best opportunities for brands to reach consumers, but more importantly are used to showcase the performance of their shoes. According to Powell, consumers of performance footwear are generally more swayed by new technologies than name-recognition alone, and so the more brands hedge their bets by sponsoring numerous athletes, the better their results. Creating a compelling story around the right athlete paired with the right shoe can make all the difference.

“This year specifically, we have more opportunities to speak with runners and fans of running and engage them in conversations about the sport and our brand,” said Stephen Cheung, Brooks global director of brand marketing. “The Olympic year helps that of course as there’s increased interest in running, but, for example, we also have more sponsored athletes competing for a chance to represent the U.S. than we did in 2012, so there are more opportunities to tell stories around who they are and their journeys.”