The Peter Pan in all of us
One of the strands of DNA that links members of the Boomer-Plus Generation™, born 1940 to 1965, is our preoccupation with youthfulness – the Peter Pan Syndrome.
Peter Pan, the little boy who never grew up, is best known from Walt Disney’s classic animated movie. And if there is one thing Walt understood, it’s the kid inside all of us. All aboard for Tomorrowland!
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Disney-inspired Boomers created a society where adult youthfulness is not only permissible but embraced. No, not immaturity, but constant willingness to learn new things and discard old ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate for our age.
Which is how we Peter – and Petra – Pans invented the modern sports shoe business, and then took it viral.
Boomers and tennis shoes, um, sneakers – whatever
There are reasons why Shakespeare’s Juliet said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” rather than use sneaker for the analogy. First, given Elizabethan-era hygiene, there’s the obvious; more likely, in Romeo’s town they called sneakers tennis shoes. The poor boy would have been confused.
As reported in Business Insider, linguistic mapping by statistician Joshua Katz shows pretty much everyone in America, except the northeast, calls sports shoes tennis shoes. Up there they’re sneakers.
It’s worth noting that most major news items about the market also say sneakers. Maybe because so many who define the official language live and work back east. We’ll stick with tennis shoes.
How Boomers took tennis shoes viral
In the 1960s, Los Angeles was a mecca for distance runners. With an ideal climate for year-round training and a booming job market, former NCAA college stars could support themselves while competing for a spot on the next Olympic team.
Pretty soon SoCal 10K races attracted local fitness addicts bitten by the running bug – a few budding Hollywood stars too.
In those days, sports shoes were far from an adult fashion statement; grown ups wore them for, well, playing sports. However, teenagers and young rebels favored Chuck Taylor All-Stars for their imagery. The rebels preferred them frayed, of course.
In fact, we Boomer runners were the first to use athletic shoes as off-track casual wear. Call us shallow but, hey, it was California. We thought it was cool; they told the world we were jocks – or, in the case of your humble muse, a jock-wannabe.
So, spotting someone at the grocery store in a pair of Adidas, Pumas or Tigers was sure to start a conversation about personal best race times and that incredible new kid from Kansas, Jim Ryun – later U.S. Congressman Ryun – who ran a sub-4 minute mile in high school and smashed the world record in 1966 wearing Adidas (picture.)
That same year, future Nike co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman opened their Blue Ribbon Sports store in Santa Monica featuring Onitsuka Tigers. After selling them out of the trunk of a car at West Coast running events, Knight was planning to go big-time.
Running was still a tiny niche; a big race might attract 150-200 entrants. In 1970 we estimate there were fewer than 100,000 participants in all organized events nationwide.
In the 1970s everything began to change. A national fitness and health craze took off, hitting critical mass by 1980 – everything from health foods, vitamin use, racquetball, gym attendance to, of course, running and jogging.
Boomers were in the vanguard.
The hot new Nike brand (1971) and its inevitable competition expanded into a wide range of sports, most notably basketball, and we Boomers morphed tennis shoes into acceptable casual wear. They became both a fashion statement and an active lifestyle symbol that signaled cool and youthful at any age.
Along the way, run-for-fun race participation soared. Running USA reports that in 1990 almost 5 million people finished a 5K, 10K, half marathon or full marathon road race. By 2013, the number was 19 million; two races combined – the New York Marathon and the Peachtree 10K – had more participants than the entire U.S. total in 1970.
Even after Peter Pan Boomers hit their 40s and 50s, the sports shoe industry still recognized their importance. In 2003, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimated we bought nearly 30% of all tennis shoes. A spokesman said “… Boomers are more athletically and fitness-inclined than any 50-plus generation in the history of this country.”
The National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) reported Americans bought about 95 million pairs of tennis shoes in 2013; 46.2 million for running/jogging and 48.6 million as casual athletic shoes. NSGA growth projections suggest well over 100 million pairs of tennis shoes will be bought in 2015.
So, grudgingly accepting some mortality and the arriving Millennial horde, even if that 30% share drops to 20%, Boomers will still buy 20+ million pairs of tennis shoes this year.
Who says Peter Pan is just a fable?
Along Madison Avenue tennis shoes are still sneakers – that’s not all
The Northeast dialect sounds cute in the tennis shoe arena. However, when it comes to marketing, back east patois can be seriously incoherent: the Madison Avenue old guard mandates dropping consumers from mainstream brand advertising at age 50, because, allegedly, our ability to absorb new ideas shrivels overnight.
The Boomer-Plus Generation is actually America’s most adaptable. We didn’t make running shoes cool and take them viral by being inflexible; it’s naive to take us for granted.
We own over 70% of U.S. household net worth. And, 93 million strong, if we were a country it would be the world’s 15th most populous, the 15th Nation™ – a bigger, more affluent market than any EU nation and far bigger than Canada and Australia combined.
At Boomer / neXt (West), we have a special affinity for running. The Bolder Boulder, America’s 2nd largest 10K, is held here every Memorial Day. A quarter of last year’s 45,000+ finishers were over 50.
Brand share disruptives might want to check out what makes Boomers run.