A Shoe Of Her Own

Athletic shoemakers discover a huge market in team-sports shoes designed just for women

It's halftime on a spring Sunday morning and the sturdy, sweaty women of the Silicon Valley Aire soccer team jog off a local field. I'm holding Nike Inc.'s new $120 Air Zoom M9, named for U.S. soccer star Mia Hamm (M for Mia, 9 for her number), designed expressly for women. Everybody comes over to check it out.

Players on the Aire squad, aged high teens to mid-thirties, rattle off a litany of fit and durability complaints about the soccer shoes they wear, mostly made for men. Most agree they would gladly pay more for any shoe that solved them. One player is convinced the cleat design on a shoe caused her recent knee injury. Attorney Sara Harrington winces at the blisters she's feeling now from her ill-fitting men's Nikes. But she's curious: "What makes a woman's cleat?"

Good question. Not long ago, a "woman's shoe" in sports like soccer, basketball, or softball--if it was available at all--typically meant an inferior product, a marketing gimmick, the "pink" version. For years now, running and fitness shoes have been made specifically to fit women's feet. But for team sports, all many companies did was slap a women's size 9 on a men's size 7 shoe--or just urge women to buy the men's model. "Women haven't been catered to," acknowledges Mike Brown, U.S. marketing manager for soccer for Adidas America Inc.

FIT FIRST. That's now changing. Women's participation in a wide variety of sports is soaring. More than 13 million girls and women now shoot hoops and another 7 million play soccer. American Sports Data Inc. says growth is especially hot among girls ages 6 to 11 who are the $14 billion sports shoe biz's future: Their participation in everything from roller hockey to soccer has jumped 86% just since the late 1980s. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, women have bought more sneakers then men have, according to NPD Group, which tracks the athletic shoe market.

No wonder sneaker makers are getting politically correct in a hurry. Fashions favored boots and clunky shoes for several years, sending sales and profits slumping at most of the major athletic shoemakers. To revive, companies are stressing performance shoes again. But what is it women want? "Obviously our bodies differ from men's bodies in so many ways," says Hamm, the 27-year-old U.S. Women's National Team player often named the world's best female soccer player. "The shoes have to be different but [designed] with the same performance-based approach."

To start with, they need to fit better. Companies finally are putting resources into making sure they do. Adidas introduced its first women's soccer shoe ever in 1995 and now has five women's lines. This spring, it's matching Nike's M9 push with its exotically named, $125 Equipment Predator Maneeta cleat for women, just in time for Women's World Cup action in Pasadena, Calif., this July.

Just within the last few years, Nike has decreed that every research project will look half at men and half at women. The fact is, more careful measuring has already changed conventions: For years, Nike women's lines featured a C width in the forefoot and a B width in the heel. But at the company's high-tech sports lab, laser scans of the bottom of hundreds of male and female feet showed that women's feet weren't just narrower, they tapered to the heel much more sharply--to as narrow as AA in many women. The same scans also showed that female arches are proportionally higher and longer than men's.

At Nike and elsewhere, these studies are influencing the design of women-specific "lasts," the foot molds on which athletic shoes are assembled in the factory. Small changes can make a big difference: Motion studies show an average soccer player, for example, makes 1,000 changes of speed and direction in a 90-minute game. Heel sliding can lead to blisters, injury, and reduced performance.

Beyond feet, the angle of a woman's hip to knee is different than a man's and may be implicated in ligament tears and other injuries. Another difference is body mass: Women with the same length feet as men are typically much lighter. That suggests the cushioning and weight of men's styles may be excessive, even unduly tiring. Not to mention ugly, says Sheryl Swoopes, former Olympic and now pro women's basketball player. "I have size 11 feet. Any time I wear a man's shoe it makes my foot look even bigger than it is."

In 1995, Swoopes was only Nike's second athlete, after Michael Jordan, to have a shoe named for her when Nike introduced Air Swoopes. But many women players weren't impressed: "It was marketing, not design innovation," says Missy Park, a former Yale University basketball player and president of the Emeryville (Calif.) mail order company, Title 9 Sports. Five versions later, though, Air Swoopes is much higher tech. Now, the M9 project is taking women's shoe design to a new level. In late 1997, a crew of Nike designers descended on Hamm's Florida home. They grilled her on everything from her favorite colors to her pet peeves. "They didn't just want my name and likeness," insists Hamm. "They really wanted my input."

Hamm remembers recounting to the designers a nightmare tour: "We played in Brazil, and every night there would be torrential downpours, and my shoes would feel three times as heavy because the kangaroo absorbed so much water." Indeed, the finest soccer cleats traditionally have been made from kangaroo leather. The buttery soft material conforms to the player's foot, providing what players call "touch" on the ball. Women, it turns out, want touch but also light weight and comfort, while men rank durability higher, according to Nike research. Hamm reported an array of problems with past shoes. But mostly, she wanted lightness.

Notes in hand, the Nike squad went back to headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. The first sketches involved general style and color. The conservative Hamm prefers all-black shoes; Nike designers wanted something more dramatic. The compromise: The outside of the shoe is black, but the instep-to-toe area is red, and the color is applied with a special material that improves ball control.

To get the lightest shoe possible, Nike used its most advanced polymer plate where the cleats attach. Unlike sneakers, cleated shoes don't have a midsole, and some bruising and discomfort players feel is from cleat pressure. Designers used a flat, light, fiber cushion on the bottom of the liner. Anatomical foam liners are one of Nike's new weapons to improve women's fit in many lines, including a Mia Hamm cross-training shoe due out for fall. Nike realized the liners were a hit when female shoe testers liked the early designs so much they filched the liners before returning the samples.

For the M9's upper, Nike again followed Hamm's orders, leading to a radical departure for high-end shoes: using a synthetic material called "KNG 100" that is soft and strong but doesn't absorb water or stretch. It was an image risk, given kangaroo's elite cachet. But Hamm blessed it, and tests among college players gave it a thumb's-up.

The M9 is made in Italy, although a $65 "take-down" version of the shoe--same styling but less expensive features--is made in Asia. To start, the snazzier M9s will mainly be found in specialty soccer shops. As companies build more credibility with women athletes, these design innovations will trickle down over time, gradually improving even the mid-priced cleats worn by women like my Aire squad friends and so many other Mia wannabes.

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