Out of the Closet 

When Memphians compete, what's on their feet?

An estimated 7,000 runners took part in last year's Memphis Marathon, half-marathon, and 5K race. An impressive number, to be sure, for so many to run so far. But where some saw athletic feats, retailers saw an impressive 7,000 pairs of feet and 7,000 pairs of running shoes.

Running shoes, sneakers, cross-trainers, tennis shoes, indoor-court shoes, basketball shoes, skateboard shoes, retro canvas shoes -- whatever you call them, we're a nation that takes our sports and our shoes seriously. Even those who don't compete wear pricey athletic footwear as a fashion statement or for the sheer comfort in our increasingly casual workplaces. In the closet of many a college student or weekend warrior, there are probably more pairs of athletic shoes than dress shoes.

Technology, fashion, marketing, and the global economy have combined to bring us shoes that look better, feel better, and cost less (adjusted for inflation) than they did a generation or two ago.

So what are Memphians wearing for recreation and just looking and feeling good in the feet?

"For runners, Asics and Saucony, especially with women, are two that lead the pack," said William "Bubba" Halliday, president of Breakaway Athletics. "Then maybe Nike and New Balance are our third and fourth most popular sellers. Adidas is bigger in other places, but not here in Memphis."

The Brooks specialty brand is one of Breakaway's best sellers for serious runners, with the top-of-the-line model selling for around $130. Halliday recommends that shoes be replaced every 400 miles, meaning that a person who runs 20 to 25 miles a week would need two or three new pairs a year.

For tennis, the top seller at String N Swing in Germantown for both men and women is Nike's new Air Breathe Free model. "It's a shoe that has no tongue, so your foot fits in it like a sock," says Grant Morgan of String N Swing. "It has a rubber mesh around it like a fish net, which lets air out and still gives the foot decent support." The shop sold "tons" of them this summer at about $110 a pair. A relatively new entry into the tennis shoe market is Babolat, which used to specialize in strings but is crowding Prince and Wilson for shelf space.

Rhodes College tennis coach Sarah Hatgas says women prefer Adidas or Nike, but it's every woman for herself in Division 3 where there are no shoe contracts. "Usually they go for the flashy colors and the lightest," she says. At Varsity Tennis Shop, co-owner David Chin says the Prince Scream and New Balance CT 652 model, both about $70, are the top sellers.

Shoes are big business in big-time college basketball, with shoe contracts and endorsements and bidding wars. The University of Memphis Tigers men's team is wearing Adidas "T-Mac 5" or the "Structure" model this year. The Lady Tigers wear Nikes. U of M Athletic Department spokesman Lamar Chance says players can go through as many as five pairs each season.

In the NBA, it's every pro for himself. The top three choices of the Memphis Grizzlies are Adidas, Nike, and And 1, according to media relations director Stacey Mitch.

The best-selling basketball shoe last year at Foot Locker in the Oak Court Mall and at Hickory Ridge Mall was Nike's Michael Jordan retro line, according to store employees.

Specialty sports have specialty shoes. Serious skateboarders like Etnies, which go for about $60, according to Demont Oliver of Journeys. For people who just like the casual look of the low-cut, flat-soled skate shoes, Vans are popular, and ES is "an up-and-comer that is a good, durable shoe." Cycling shoes come in metric sizes and have rigid soles (and expensive price tags up to $275), which make them unsuitable for casual wear. But bicycle racer Pete Knoop Jr. says that for just hanging out after a race, he and his fellow competitors like Merrells and Keen. Indoor-court shoes for racquetball and squash are usually lightweight with gum soles that would wear out quickly on hard outdoor surfaces. Ektelon, a division of Prince Sports, is the choice of Kane Waselenchuk, three-time winner of the Choice Hotels U.S. Open Racquetball Championships played in Memphis.

branston@memphisflyer.com 

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