Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The waffle-soled running shoes designed by Bill Bowerman revolutionized the sport of running and, when introduced to the public, helped inspire the running movement of the 1970’s.

Summary of Event

By the time his Blue Ribbon Sports company introduced its line of Nike athletic shoes in 1972, Bill Bowerman was already one of the most renowned authorities on the sport of running as well as one of its foremost ambassadors. As track coach at the University of Oregon from 1949 to 1972, Bowerman led his teams to four national championships and his athletes to thirteen world records and twenty-six American records. Among his former students were many of the most famous names in American running, including multiple U.S. record holder Steve Prefontaine, whom Bowerman would again coach in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Sports;shoes Nike Shoes, athletic [kw]Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe (Spring, 1972) [kw]First Running Shoe, Nike Produces Its (Spring, 1972) [kw]Running Shoe, Nike Produces Its First (Spring, 1972) [kw]Shoe, Nike Produces Its First Running (Spring, 1972) Sports;shoes Nike Shoes, athletic [g]North America;Spring, 1972: Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe[00630] [g]United States;Spring, 1972: Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe[00630] [c]Trade and commerce;Spring, 1972: Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe[00630] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Spring, 1972: Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe[00630] [c]Sports;Spring, 1972: Nike Produces Its First Running Shoe[00630] Bowerman, Bill Knight, Phil Prefontaine, Steve

It was frustration that led Bowerman to develop the waffle-soled racer, a light, durable shoe designed specifically for running. Early in his career as a running coach, he became dissatisfied with the quality of available athletic shoes and began experimenting with the design of his athletes’ shoes, trimming and shaping the soles and trying out various materials to minimize their weight, maximize traction, and prevent blisters.

In 1964, Bowerman invested five hundred dollars in a business partnership with Phil Knight, whom he had coached at the University of Oregon in the 1950’s, to expand a shoe distribution company that Knight had created in 1962. The company, Blue Ribbon Sports, imported Japanese brands of running shoes and sold them at high school and college track meets. Knight often sold the shoes himself out of the trunk of his automobile. Meanwhile, Bowerman worked toward designing shoes for production. In 1967, Blue Ribbon Sports introduced the “Cortez,” a training shoe that became the company’s most popular product; the following year, the company marketed the “Boston shoe,” the first running shoe to feature a cushioned midsole. In 1971, Blue Ribbon Sports introduced a soccer shoe bearing the company’s new logo—a simple downward-curving stripe that would become known as the “swoosh”—and the name “Nike,” the name of the ancient Greek goddess of victory.

Bowerman continued to improve on his previous designs for running shoes. To decrease the weight and increase the traction of the outer sole, he sought to reduce the surface area at the bottom of the sole with a knobbed design similar to that of a tire tread. Lacking a suitable mold, Bowerman poured a special urethane mixture into his wife’s waffle iron, cut the cooled, molded sheets to size, and affixed them to nylon uppers. The result was the Nike Waffle Racer, a flat racing shoe also nicknamed the “Moon shoe” because of the resemblance of the waffle-patterned tread to footprints left by astronauts on the Moon.

In 1972, Blue Ribbon Sports introduced a full line of Nike shoes, featuring the Waffle Racer and its innovative sole design. The shoe quickly became popular for its light weight and the ability of the sole to absorb impact and provide traction on a variety of surfaces. At first Bowerman, Knight, and company employees continued the practice of selling shoes out of their cars at track-and-field meets, but later that year, Blue Ribbon Sports launched its first major promotion of the shoe, distributing Waffle Racers to athletes at the U.S. Olympic track-and-field trials in Eugene, Oregon. The introduction of the shoe at the 1972 Olympic trials marked the beginning of the company’s efforts to associate its products with world-class athletes. Prefontaine became the first major track athlete to wear Nike shoes in competition, and in 1974, he signed a five-thousand-dollar contract with Blue Ribbon Sports, becoming the first athlete to endorse Nike products.

The success of the Waffle Racer inspired Blue Ribbon Sports to introduce a similar shoe to the public. In 1974, the company began marketing the Waffle Trainer, which rapidly set company records for sales and became the most popular running shoe in the United States. The introduction of the Waffle Trainer came just as a fitness craze had begun to sweep the United States, and a jogging trend, sparked in part by Bowerman’s promotion of jogging as exercise in the mid-1960’s, gained new momentum among young fitness-conscious Americans at the height of the “me decade.”

Demand for the Nike Waffle Trainer grew so rapidly that Blue Ribbon Sports struggled to produce sufficient numbers of the shoes to fill orders and was forced to borrow money to sustain production. The company’s profits reached fourteen million dollars in 1976, and within a year had doubled to twenty-eight million dollars. Blue Ribbon Sports, renamed Nike, Incorporated, in 1978, both benefited from and contributed to the “running revolution” of the 1970’s and 1980’s, improving on the original design of the Waffle Trainer with updated models and enjoying steadily increasing sales.

Nike remained dominant in the American athletic shoe industry and a major competitor in the global athletic shoe market into the twenty-first century. Although the company drew criticism in the late twentieth century for its labor and advertising practices, it continued to produce innovative athletic shoes such as the Nike Air line, which featured a gas pocket in the heel for added cushioning, and the Free, a running shoe designed to mimic the experience of barefoot running, considered by many to be effective in injury prevention and strength development.

Significance

In addition to representing a significant advance in athletic shoe technology, the waffle-soled Nike running shoe had profound impacts on both the sport of competitive running and the emergence of running as a hobby among Americans of the 1970’s. Nike became the first American company to compete successfully in the nascent high-technology athletic shoe market, previously dominated by Japanese and German companies.

Nike’s aggressive efforts to secure endorsement contracts with amateur track-and-field athletes contributed to an expansion of this practice as other companies began to compete for athletic endorsements. Bowerman and Prefontaine were outspoken proponents of relaxing standards for amateur athletes to allow them to receive prize money for winning competitions, a position that was controversial but became increasingly popular as track-and-field meets and road races drew larger crowds, received more publicity, and generated more revenue. As a result, the definition of amateur athletic status changed, and many amateur athletes were compensated sufficiently through product endorsements, prize money, and appearance fees that they were able to pursue their sports as full-time occupations.

Through the immensely popular Waffle Trainer, with its innovative design, Bowerman fulfilled his long-standing mission to advance the popularity of jogging as a pastime and running as a sport. The shoe was one of many factors that contributed to the running boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s, during which millions of Americans began running, jogging, and walking for fitness and recreation, and competitive runners such as Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, and Joan Benoit became iconic figures of American sport. The popularity of running waned slightly at the end of the 1980’s only to rebound in the late 1990’s. By the end of the twentieth century, many annual road races that had once consisted of hundreds of competitors hosted thousands of runners, and marathons—once restricted to the most serious of competitive runners—included numerous amateur athletes for whom simply finishing was a gratifying accomplishment. Sports;shoes Nike Shoes, athletic

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heard, Neal. Sneakers. London: Carlton Books, 2003. Voluminous photo-essay on athletic shoes includes photographs of early Nike shoes, including the first waffle racers, as well as photos of contemporary shoes produced by a variety of Nike competitors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Tom. Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1997. Discusses Prefontaine’s relationships with Bowerman and Nike as well as his struggles with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) as a result of his association with Nike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Donald. Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media, 1995. Corporate history of Blue Ribbon Sports/Nike focuses on Phil Knight and the emergence of Nike as a dominant force in the athletic shoe market. Includes discussion of the role of running shoes in the growth of the company during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Kenny. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Co-Founder. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2006. Biography of Bowerman by a former pupil is subjective in tone but is based on extensive research into Bowerman’s life and work as well as detailed personal recollections of key events, including several historic moments in track and field and Bowerman’s role in the development of the waffle-soled running shoe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strasser, J. B. Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. History of the Nike corporation includes background information on the introduction of the first Nike running shoe.

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