There are two kinds of basketball sneakers.
One is meant for playing ball in. They’re performance shoes, designed to provide stability and support as athletes run, jump, cut, and do whatever else they might need to do.
The other may have started out as a performance shoe, but is no longer cutting-edge; it’s now something people wear on city streets rather than an basketball court. Retro Jordans generally fit in this category, along with the Converse Chuck Taylor, which it’s easy to forget was once a top-of-the-line athletic sneaker.
At times both types have served as fashion in the US; Americans once paired the latest basketball sneakers with jeans and wore them around just for style, like during Michael Jordan’s heyday. But now is not one of those times. Like other performance footwear, over the past few years basketball sneakers have been usurped by casual, fashion-focused shoes inspired by sports but not meant for competing in them. They’ve been shoved aside over the past few years by retro shoes, sock-like sneakers, and most recently clunky behemoths such as Fila’s Disruptor II.
According to data from research firm NPD Group, five years ago basketball sneakers accounted for 13% of the US sales it tracks; they’re down to about 4% today. The data comes from point-of-sale numbers that retailers share with the firm, so it doesn’t include the growing direct-to-consumer sales of brands like Nike, a giant in basketball. But Matt Powell, NPD’s vice president and a sports industry analyst, previously told Quartz that the data covers about three-quarters of the market and reflects its broader trends.
It’s normal for different types of sneakers to cycle in and out of fashion, but this trend appears to be more pronounced. ”I’ve been doing research in the business for almost 20 years, and we’ve always had at least one performance category that was trending positively as a fashion trend,” Powell said in a February interview. “Now we’re in a period where there’s not a single performance category—not running, not basketball, not training, not even hiking—that is trending positively.”
The shift has been noticed by big sneaker retailers like Foot Locker, which has seen weak sales in basketball for several quarters running. Signature sneakers are especially struggling, with one exception: LeBron James’s Nikes.
“I’ve said many, many times that our consumer is driven by cool,” Foot Locker CEO Dick Johnson noted on an August call with investors. “And if cool happens to be in basketball, our consumer will be motivated by that and by basketball…At the same time, we’re seeing such tremendous strength across the Max Air platform, Yeezys, all sorts of silhouettes, the Fila Disruptor that have nothing to do with basketball that the consumer is really excited to buy.”
Walk by the front window of a Foot Locker and you’ll probably see shoes like Nike’s Air Max 270, Adidas Continentals, or a pair of Vans. You might also see one-time basketball shoes like Nike Air Force 1s. What you’re less likely to see on the street these days is the same sneaker an NBA player would wear on the court.