In 1995, while Michael Jordan was already selling Air Jordans for $125, Hakeem Olajuwon endorsed a sneaker that retailed for only $35.
In a time when basketball sneakers are sold for several hundred dollars, let’s take a look back at The Dream’s ”perfect world” with this article by Michael Sokolove and Nita Lelyveld from December 22, 1995.
A Sneaker Bargain Teens Aren’t Buying
On Chestnut Street in the week before Christmas, the sneaker boutiques were selling all the latest high-end models – the Jordans and the Grant Hills adorned with patent leather; Shawn Kemp’s zebra-striped Reebok “Kamikazes”; Deion’s cross-trainers with every conceivable frill but goldfish swimming in the heels.
At the entrance of a Payless Shoe Store in the 1200 block stood a seven- foot cardboard cutout of the regal Hakeem Olajuwon, star of the NBA champion Houston Rockets.
This was to attract possible buyers of Olajuwon’s new sneakers, which are emphatically not high-end. His Spalding basketball shoes have the most unlikely gimmick of the season: a $34.99 price tag.
“A mother with four children can’t afford to spend $400 on shoes that will wear out in a couple of months,” Olajuwon said when his sneakers debuted in October. “Parents must teach their kids a sense of value. Paying more doesn’t mean it’s better. That’s not value.”
Olajuwon, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Lagos, Nigeria, said he hoped that by attaching his fame to a moderately priced sneaker, he could help change attitudes.
“How do you define cool?” he said. “What’s cool is doing the right thing at the right time, being proper, displaying manners, representing your family very well. Don’t wear things just to be cool.”
At the Foot Locker at 13th and Chestnut, assistant manager Barry Jenkins said he liked Olajuwon’s sentiments. In a “perfect world,” he said, the concept might even score with teenagers.
But Foot Locker wasn’t even carrying Olajuwon’s sneakers amid displays of $100-and-up Air Maxes and Air Jordans.
And a block away at the Payless, the cardboard Hakeem was looking lonely.
Brand-name sneakers endorsed by famous athletes are designed to be sold in a certain kind of store. A Foot Locker or an Athletes Foot. An upscale sporting goods store at a suburban mall.
You normally will not find Nikes, Reeboks and Filas thrown into bins with $15 canvas tennis shoes.
That is the world of Wal-Mart, Kmart and Payless – the “mass market,” it is called – and that is where Olajuwon, twice named NBA’s most valuable player, has chosen to market his signature sneaker.
(Mass market, by the way, does not mean struggling. Payless sells about 200 million pairs of shoes and sneakers each year and accounts for one of every five footwear purchases in the United States.)
“A sneaker is sold in one market or the other,” says Larry Green, marketing director for Mercury International, which is producing Olajuwon’s sneakers under a licensing agreement with Spalding. “The distinction is between heavily advertised national brands, which is what the Foot Lockers carry, and brands that don’t enjoy the benefit of national advertising.”
Olajuwon and his Rockets bested marketing colossus Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic in last year’s NBA Finals. He may well have overtaken Jordan as the NBA’s best player. But his sneakers and their sneakers will never share shelf space.
“We would not carry the Hakeem shoe in our store,” said Harold Ruttenberg, chief executive officer of the emerging Just for Feet chain, whose 20,000-square-foot stores are designed like Planet Hollywoods or Hard Rock Cafes and carry up to 5,000 styles.
“Our kind of customer, if he knows that something is sold at Kmart, you couldn’t give it to him free,” Ruttenberg said. “His friends would laugh at him at school if he wore them. You’re looking at real blue-collar here.”
Green conceded that the teenage market, especially the urban teenage market, will be the toughest sell for Spalding. Olajuwon’s concept of getting value for money spent may hold more appeal for parents than youngsters. In fact, Olajuwon himself may appeal more to adult tastes.
“I don’t talk the trash,” he said during last season’s playoffs, when asked if he was basketball’s best player. “That is not interesting to me. That is not sensible. I only want to be with sensible people. This is a game of skill, not conversation.”
Selling sneakers to teenagers, however, is very much a Madison Avenue version of trash-talking.
“Among teenagers, the purchase of athletic shoes is very much driven by image and attitude,” Green said. “That’s the genius of Nike. It’s a wonderful company with wonderful products. But the attitude and image is what kids buy into.”
Outside the Payless on Chestnut Street, 19-year-old Charles Thompson, a senior at West Philadelphia High School, was out shopping with his mother, Dorothy. He didn’t even break stride to look at the giant Hakeem display.
“I really don’t like them,” he said. “I don’t like the cut. I don’t like the design. I like the Jordans.”
Thompson said he works at Burger King and saved up the money to buy himself two pairs of Nike Air Max sneakers at $120 a pair. One pair is neon green and gray, the other blue and white.
Thompson said that the colors of the Olajuwon sneakers – black, white and red – looked “outdated” and that the leather looked “cheap.”
Even if he liked them, he said, he probably wouldn’t go into Payless for sneakers.
“That’s not where a lot of young people go,” he said. “They don’t go to Payless to get their shoes. I would just go there to get a pair of dress shoes to go to church, not for anything else.”
At the Gallery, Brent Brickley, assistant manager at Foot Locker, said his customers are interested exclusively in what they see advertised on television.
Nikes have release dates, just like books and records. But demand was so great for the shiny, patent-leather Air Jordans that the store was given the go-ahead to start selling them early. A shipment of the shoes – 60 or 70 pairs – lasts only about two days, Brickley said. On Wednesday, his store had only two pairs left – children’s sizes 11 and 13.
“You can’t even find that shoe anywhere in the city now,” Brickley said. ”I’m telling you, we get 50 phone calls a day asking, ‘Do you have the Jordans? Got the Jordans?’ It’s getting so frustrating, I don’t even want to answer the phone.”
Brickley said he was shocked when he went to work at Foot Locker after having sold shoes in Bridgewater, N.Y. There, he said, his customers walked around the store in the shoes they were trying on, checking the fit and asking questions about quality and wear and tear. In Philadelphia, he said, his customers frequently plunk down $100 for sneakers or Timberland boots without so much as trying them on.
At the other end of the Gallery, salesmen at another Foot Locker branch laughed out loud when asked if they had the new Olajuwon Spaldings.
“He went wrong on that one,” 20-year-old salesman John Idi said. “Ain’t nobody ever wearing no Spaldings. No way.”
To sell basketball shoes, Idi said, “you have to do a whole lot of promotion. And Spalding, they don’t have the money for that.”
Olajuwon’s shoe ( called “The Dream,” for his nickname of “Hakeem the Dream”) has been advertised in a couple of basketball magazines. Payless Shoes tested a television commercial in the Detroit market – a rare case of Payless promoting an individual shoe.
But there isn’t likely to be an extensive national advertising campaign for Olajuwon’s sneakers.
Much of the retail price of a Nike or any other high-end athletic shoe goes toward paying for the advertising that makes the consumer want to buy it. If Spalding tried to match that, Olajuwon’s sneakers could no longer be priced as low as $35.
The shoe itself is a stripped-down version of the more expensive sneakers being sold. It is a basic basketball shoe with the only frills being a decal on the back that says “The Dream” and Olajuwon’s No. 34 above it.
Olajuwon wears a custom-made version for Rockets games. The only reason it’s custom-made, Green said, is that Spalding doesn’t make a size 17 for retail sale.
“It’s a very credible performance shoe with a big-name athlete backing it up,” says John Horan, publisher of the weekly newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence. “It’s a very good concept, but believe me, it’s nothing that has (Nike chairman) Phil Knight quaking in his boots.”
Mark Tedeschi, a reporter for Footwear News, says sales of Olajuwon’s sneakers have been good enough that the concept may soon spawn imitators – other athletes endorsing in the mass market.
But in the athletic-footwear industry, success means being only somewhere in the shadow of Nike, whose $6 billion in sales in 1994 were more than twice those of second-place Reebok.
At the Payless on Chestnut Street, store manager James Jones said the Olajuwon Spaldings were not moving briskly, even with a lavish display in a store that generally sells shoes with little fanfare.
“Young people, they come to the window and look at it, but they don’t come in and they don’t buy it,” he said. “I guarantee you, if they put this same setup in Foot Locker and charged a lot more for the shoe, they would buy it.”
His sneakers were a bigger success than this article might suggest. Here’s a short story published on March 12, 1996, on CBS.
“CBS This Morning’s” Jane Robelot examined the economics of basketball shoes in the inner city, noting that in Harlem, they counted “three to four sneaker stores on every block.” N.Y. POST columnist Phil Mushnick: “We saw the Nikes go from $40 to $90 to $100 and people started dying for these things — kids, innocent kids.” As opposed to NBA stars Jason Kidd and Chris Webber whose self-styled Nike shoes run up to $140, Robelot reports Hakeem Olajuwon required that his shoe be sold at a price that kids, especially inner city kids, could afford. The result was Spalding’s $35 “Dream” shoe. When Robelot took the Dream to a Brooklyn gym for the “real experts to try out,” the kids there described them as “light and comfortable,” but said they would “wear them for basketball but not for walking outside.” Robelot: “The idea of showing up in school in $35 shoes was not going over that day in Brooklyn.” Robelot adds the Dream “has been out since October and more than 1.5 million pairs have been sold, more than any other single model except for Nikes Air Jordan.