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3 reasons Boston dominates running brands

Posted by Chad O'Connor  December 10, 2013 11:00 AM

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Last week in Austin, TX running stores and running brands from around the country convened for The Running Event, the world’s largest conference and trade show for the running industry. My give-back running apparel company, Janji, made the 2,000 mile trip from Brookline to exhibit at The Running Event and expand the list of stores that carry our line of running apparel.

As I went through the hundred or so vendors on the exhibition floor, a disproportionate number—especially the big brands—hailed from the Boston area. Stepping through the entrance, one immediately ran into Saucony (Lexington based); turning left there was New Balance (Brighton) and then Puma (Westford). Reebok (Canton) and Vibram (Concord), as well as lesser-known running companies such as Inov8 (Southborough), Karhu/Craft (Salem) and Topo Athletic (Newton) also had a major presence at the show.

This high number of companies raises the question: why is the Boston region overly represented in the running industry? It comes down to three reasons.

1) History of shoemaking
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the shoe production industry thrived in the greater Boston area. Paired with the region’s booming textile industry, shoemakers were plentiful across eastern Massachusetts, especially in Haverhill, Brockton, and Lynn. While most of the production side has since moved overseas, many companies that trace their lineage to local production have thrived as standalone brands.

New Balance, which got its start in 1906 as a domestic manufacturer of arch supports, has been the goliath of Boston’s running industry ever since Jim Davis purchased the company in 1972. In an homage to its roots New Balance, with annual sales of more than $2 billion, still produces a percentage of its shoes in New England factories. Only four years after the founding of New Balance, Abraham Hyde started a shoe company called Hyde Athletic Industries in Cambridge; in 1968, he went on to buy (and relocate to Boston) a small running brand called Saucony. Today, Saucony and New Balance are two of the largest running brands in the world and have become pillars of the Boston running industry.

2) A great running culture
The Boston Marathon was founded in 1897, shortly after the revival of the marathon during the 1896 Olympics. Today, the Boston Marathon is the premier American marathon and the gravitational center of the Boston running universe. Students get the day off from school, the Red Sox game is scheduled to coincide with the race, and millions of supporters come and cheer one of the most competitive races in the world.

But the famous marathon isn’t the only highlight of Boston’s running scene: Boston is one of the most runner friendly cities in the country (number three, in fact, according to Boston has several of the best indoor tracks in the country, hosts dozens of local races every weekend, and is home to three of the best running clubs in the country. It’s no coincidence that there are 29 running specific stores in the Boston area, one of the highest per capita in the country.

3) Success begets success
Just like Silicon Valley with tech or New York with finance, Boston has become the hub for running brands, which has the cyclical effect of luring companies to the region. Vibram, Puma, Karhu, and Innov8—which hail from Italy, Germany, Finland, and the U.K respectively—each chose Boston as their North American headquarters. New running companies have spun out of older ones (Topo Athletic from Vibram); new investors of running brands hail from older running companies (Fireman Capital Partners and Breakaway Innovation Group trace their roots to Adidas’ $3.8 billion purchase of Reebok); and new running technology has spread first in Boston and then across the country (South End based RunKeeper is one of the most popular running apps).

We relocated Janji from St. Louis to the Boston region to take advantage of this incredible ecosystem. From designers, to fit technicians, to experts in supply chain management, we’ve been able to draw talent and knowhow from a deep pool of experienced workers in the running industry.

Keeping Boston runner friendly
So why is the history of Boston’s running industry important? For one, Boston’s incoming mayor as well as the region’s economic development authority should understand what has made the Boston running ecosystem successful and, from this data, learn how to invest in the thriving industry—running participation and sales of running gear has been growing at exceptional rates since 1994.

Although there are many tech incubators in Boston, the city should set up an incubator for startups that are looking to innovate in this space to ensure that entrepreneurs in the running industry stay in (or relocate to) Boston. The region should also continually invest in Boston’s great system of trails and paths which are the crown jewel of Boston as a run-friendly city.

As proof of the benefits of investing in running, New Balance recently broke ground on a new $500M headquarters. And last month Saucony, for the first time, surpassed ASICS to become the number two running brand sold in specialty running stores. Both companies, as well as dozens of others in the industry, provide thousands of jobs in the greater Boston area and untold economic benefits.

Today Boston is unquestionably the world’s hub for running companies. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

David Spandorfer is the co-founder of Janji. Through each purchase of Janji’s distinctive running apparel, a portion of proceeds funds organizations that are alleviating the worst problems related to food and water.

[We are thankful for Global Business Hub’s support of the Creative Industries. Please note: This article does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development or its Creative Economy Industry Director for the Commonwealth, nor is it an endorsement of any views, products, or opinions contained therein. The author is solely responsible for the content.]

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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