Nike

Quality sportswear enhances performance and expresses identity for athletes at all levels. But what are the leading activewear brands? This guide examines the origins, specialties, notable technologies, and star athletes of top sportswear companies like Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and more.

Nike

Founded in 1964, Nike reigns as the premier global sports brand by leveraging technology and innovation.

Origins

  • Founded January 25, 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman before rebranding as Nike in 1971.
  • Knight was a University of Oregon runner coached by Bowerman, who helped refine early shoe designs.
  • Based in Beaverton, Oregon expanding from selling imported shoes from the trunk of Knight’s car to a sports empire.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Revolutionary Nike Air technology providing impact cushioning made its debut in 1979. Evolved over generations of shoes.
  • Gamechanging Flyknit construction launching in 2012 used ultra-light knitted material to form a seamless upper, dramatically improving fit and reducing waste.
  • Vaporfly 4% marathon shoes incorporating carbon fiber plates and ultra-light foams broke records, prompting regulation changes limiting tech.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • Michael Jordan partnership beginning in 1984 launched Air Jordan signature line and shifted basketball shoe hype and culture.

-Later signature athletes across sports included Bo Jackson, Tiger Woods, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Nadal, LeBron James, Serena Williams and more.

  • “Just Do It” slogan epitomized embracing athletic challenge and intensity.

Adidas

Adidas was founded in Germany in 1949 and remains a global leader focusing on soccer, running and fitness.

Origins

  • Launched by Adolf “Adi” Dassler in post-WWII Germany as a football (soccer) shoe company on August 18, 1949. The name combines his nickname and initials.
  • Dassler originally partnered with his brother Rudolf forming the Dassler Brothers Shoe Company before splitting. Brother Rudolf later created rival Puma.
  • The iconic three-stripe brand mark and trefoil logo were used from the very start.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Revolutionary copolymer soles developed in 1969 allowed moulded spikes and all-weather use, dominating running in the 1970s.
  • BOOST foam technology launched in 2013 reinvented lightweight, responsive cushioning and spread across Adidas models.
  • Primeknit material innovated one-piece uppers constructed seamlessly using high-tech yarns and knitting processes, vastly improving fit.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • Partnerships with legendary soccer player Franz Beckenbauer and the German national team gained international prominence in the 1960s.
  • Recent iconic endorsements include Lionel Messi, James Harden, Run DMC, Beyonce, David Beckham, and Kanye West among other diverse stars.
  • Originator of the “Impossible is Nothing” slogan capturing athletic perseverance.

Under Armour

Under Armour rapidly rose since its 1996 launch on the strength of moisture-wicking fabric.

Origins

  • Founded by Kevin Plank, a football player at University of Maryland frustrated by soggy cotton shirts under his gear.
  • Tested early shirt prototypes made from performance fabrics that wicked sweat and dried fast.
  • By 1999, Plank made big breakthrough getting NFL quarterback Thurman Thomas as his first major athlete partner after sending samples.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Moisture-wicking, sweat-eliminating fabrics that powered Under Armour’s launch remain fundamental to the brand.
  • “Click-Tight” sports bras revolutionized women’s athletic apparel support and comfort starting in 2013.
  • HOVR cushioning technology introduced in 2017 brought foam-less, energy-returning running shoes to compete with Boost and React foams.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • NFL and MLB deals starting in the 2000s grew UA from niche to major player in US pro sports gear.
  • Standout athletes include Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Jordan Spieth, Michael Phelps, Bryce Harper, Lindsey Vonn, and Misty Copeland anchoring global growth.
  • “I Will What I Want” motto drives empowerment messaging.

Puma

Puma separated from Adidas origins as a speed-focused performance brand.

Origins

  • Founded 1948 after Rudolf Dassler left his brother Adi’s shoe business to form rival Puma Schuhfabrik Rudolf Dassler.
  • Prioritized lightweight track spikes helping distance runner Emil Zatopek win triple gold at 1952 Olympics.
  • Puma’s leaping puma logo was introduced in 1958.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Rudolf Dassler himself refocused Puma on speed andItalian flair, introducing the Super Atom track spike in 1952 considered the best running shoe of its era.
  • evoKNIT seamless upper technology launched in 2018 brought sock-like fit and feel across Puma models.
  • Hybrid NXET smart cushioning system debuted in 2021, combining foam and gel pods for responsive energy return.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • Diego Maradona was the defining soccer star and face of global expansion in the 1980s.
  • Usain Bolt’s world record sprinting career in the 2000s furthered track & field dominance.
  • Recent signature athletes include Antoine Griezmann, Romelu Lukaku, Cara Delevingne, and Lewis Hamilton.

New Balance

Founded in 1906, New Balance is an American heritage brand focused on fit, function and performance.

Origins

  • Founded as the “New Balance Arch Support Company” in Boston manufacturing arch supports and orthotic shoes.
  • Committed over a century to perfecting technical fit and addressing all foot shapes.
  • Owned by founder William J. Riley until passing day-to-day leadership to his daughter Anne Davis and son James Davis Sr. in the 1950s.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Developed the ripple sole in 1938, improving shock absorption and all-surface traction for early running shoes.
  • Introduced the Trackster in 1960, the first New Balance running shoe bringing modern performance.
  • Created the 990 in 1982, still the flagship model today regarded as the greatest running shoe of all time.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • Steve Prefontaine’s early 1970s track career helped launch New Balance running credibility.
  • Matt Bonner of the San Antonio Spurs championed New Balance basketball arrival in 2009-2010 season.
  • Kawhi Leonard signature shoe line and Jaden Ivey 2022 top draft pick spearheaded revival in basketball.

ASICS

Founded in 1949, ASICS specializes in performance running and athletic shoes and apparel.

Origins

  • Created September 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka in Kobe, Japan, forming the Onitsuka Co fitness shoe company.
  • By 1977, Onitsuka Tiger rebranded as ASICS based on a Latin phrase translating to “Sound Mind, Sound Body”.
  • Known originally for marathon shoes, ASICS grew into all athletic domains.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Introduced revolutionary nylon spikes in 1953, dominating Olympic track through birthing running as a major sport in Japan.
  • In 1968, developed the first air cushion soles improving impact absorption and comfort under the ASICS brand.
  • Gel technology debuted in 1986, fusing silicone-based Gel pads into soles for superior shock absorption and energy return.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • Marathon legends Dick Beardsley and Joan Benoit raced to PRs and medals wearing ASICS shoes in the 1980s.
  • Carl Lewis sported ASICS for dominant Olympic long jump and sprint exploits through the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Current partners include triathlete Matt Hanson and tennis ace Novak Djokovic among aspirational athletes from all realms.

Reebok

Reebok originated British track roots before CrossFit fueled modern resurgence.

Origins

  • Founded 1958 in United Kingdom by Joe Foster developing spikes for top runners.
  • Company name comes from a fast African gazelle known for speed and graceful movement.
  • Hit 1980s cultural peak with iconic fitness and fashion footwear like Freestyles and Pumps before losing ground to Nike and Adidas.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • The enduring low-cut leather Foster running shoe introduced track-inspired design to casual wear beginning 1983.
  • Aggressive move into 1990s fitness including step, dance and studio accounted for half sales.
  • Partnership with CrossFit since 2010 created footwear and gear for explosive growth of high-intensity functional training.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • 1986 signing of basketball’s Dominique Wilkins launched the Pump basketball shoe technology and apparel crossover into American sports culture and celebrity.
  • Recently, CrossFit Games legends like Rich Froning and Brooke Wells and NHL superstar Sidney Crosby rep Reebok.

Fila

Founded 1911 in Italy, Fila gained US prominence through tennis in the 1970’s before broadening into global sport fashion.

Origins

  • Founded 1911 as an Italian textile company by the Fila brothers. Name is based on abbreviation of company town Filato near Biella.
  • Began producing clothing for alpinists and tennis players in the 1970’s, eventually sponsoring Bjorn Borg’s championship Wimbledon runs.

Brand Breakthroughs

  • Iconic F-Box logo launched in mid 1970’s came to represent the trendsetting tennis, fitness and lifestyle positioning.
  • Collaborations with rising hip-hop artists, DJs and breakdancers in the mid 1980’s built cultural streetwear influence.
  • Recent focus on lifestyle, tennis heritage and new technologies blending performance and style for the future.

Notable Athlete Partners

  • Tennis domination led by Bjorn Borg in 1970’s and 1980’s converting Fila into a premier racquet sports brand.
  • 1990’s deals with basketball stars Grant Hill and Jerry Stackhouse accompanied attempted hoops expansion.
  • Current ambassadors are rising tennis stars like Casper Ruud and Coco Gauff and golf icon Rickie Fowler.

Sportswear Brands FAQ

When did Nike become the global leader in sportswear?

Nike surpassed Adidas in US sales by 1984. Marketing innovations like Air Jordan shoes and the “Just Do It” slogan accelerated growth through the 80’s and 90’s conquering America then the world.

How has Adidas differentiated itself from Nike?

Adidas focuses more on soccer and running compared to Nike’s broader American sports partnerships. The German brand also holds strong lifestyle appeal especially in Europe and Asia that maintains loyal fans.

What fueled Under Armour’s rise as an industry disruptor?

Under Armour’s sweat-wicking fabric innovations opened new performance categories beyond shoes. Partnering with the NFL and MLB as Nike focused on the NBA expanded brand reach tremendously since the 2000’s.

Why has Puma recently lost US market share compared to competing brands?

Puma failed to secure upper echelon athlete endorsement deals on the scale of Nike and Adidas to anchor brand growth in America. Market share dropped from double digits in the 2000’s to under 5% by 2022.

How do sports brands approach sustainability and labor reforms?

Brands try offsetting environmental impacts through material choices like recycled plastic and knits to reduce waste. But labor reform proves trickier balancing worker protections and cost control, a work in progress.

Which sports brand is most popular in South Korea?

Fila maintains deep market roots in South Korea since entering the market in 1984. About 1 in 3 sportswear purchases there are Fila, benefiting from product tailoring and local endorsements.

Do regional preferences vary between sportswear brands globally?

Yes. Adidas and Puma outpace Nike in parts of Europe. Fila and Kappa outrank competitors in South Korea. Under Armour and New Balance lead portions of North America. Local legacy and marketing matters.

Understanding the legacies behind sporting giants helps explain how competitive, cultural and innovative forces shaped iconic athletic apparel brands we know today. For over a century, sportswear continues inspiring athletes worldwide to unlock their potential.

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Author

  • Tom Eddy

    Tom Eddy is the founder and CEO of Poll Position, a leading sports news and opinion website. Eddy founded Poll Position driven by a vision of creating an innovative digital media brand focused exclusively on sports journalism. Under Eddy's leadership, Poll Position has grown from a solo blog into one of the most visited online destinations for sports coverage.

    https://pollposition.com/ Eddy Tom

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