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Primacy in pickleball could push Asics over the ‘funish’ line

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On Tuesday morning, five days before the 2024 Tokyo Marathon, the sportswear supremo and race sponsor, Asics, was forced to issue a formal apology over something it might have embraced. 

An illustrated map of the marathon course, printed on thousands of Tokyo Marathon T-shirts, showed the showcase event ending at a “funish” line in front of the Imperial Palace.

That sounds about right. As a word that splices the notional joy of running and the gruelling reality of doing it over 26 (or any other number of) miles, verbal mash-ups do not get much more apposite. It’s fun, but with notes.

It was not, alas, deliberate. But, in a world conditioned to cherish moisture-wicking shirts, Fitbit rash and Strava kudos icons, it really should have been. Funish perfectly describes the burdensome beneficence of exercise in an era where we are told we can never take enough. Funish are the endorphins sneeringly squeezed out of us by a fear of flab. Funish is a massive global industry, and Asics looks increasingly like the master of it.

It nearly wasn’t. In the five years before the pandemic, Asics was in worrisome shape. Global sales fell in all but one of those years even as the emergent middle classes of China started buying more expensive branded running shoes to take exercise in, and the sport began to take off in India and south-east Asia.

Considered by a great many serious runners to be the serious runner’s favourite shoemaker, Kobe-based Asics was, between 2015 and 2022, losing several important fights. At the top level, through self-acknowledged management complacency and design blunders, its shoes were losing their status as the default choice of elite distance runners and the most serious amateurs. 

In the more heavy-footed segment, Asics was also being trounced by more aggressive marketing from Nike, Adidas and newcomers like Hoka and On in the struggle for footwear supremacy in the 5km run market — the heartland of funish. This is a distance favoured by the global millions who have taken up running to lose weight or get fit. Some will be happy from start to finish of that distance, some will look forward to the gaspy moment of completion, some will be propelled the entire way by a soggy sense of obligation.

But in a turnaround which, if it continues, looks destined to become a business school case study, Asics worked out how to bend the commercial power of funish to its will. It has seen how affluent consumers increasingly see shoes as both performance enhancers and high-tech offsets for pain. The marketing still presses on the imagery of pure enjoyment and achievement; the products quietly cater to those going into each run braced to twinge, puff and possibly ache a bit afterwards.

In a three-year plan that began in 2021 after changes at the top, Asics worked on big technical improvements to the shoes themselves. But crucially it focused on creating a wide but easy-to-grasp matrix of performance running shoes, so that funish runners of various types — from the speedfreaks to those wanting more bounce to those needing the highest protection for creaky knees — could shop like connoisseurs and derive pleasure from the experience. 

Buoyed with confidence in its improved strategy, Asics is now looking for dominance in pickleball, the racket game that has spent the past few years on an astonishing trajectory of mass participation in the US and elsewhere. The delirious testimony of pickleball’s many converts — some talk in terms of an addiction — suggests very strongly that this sport lives in an untempered state of joy-giving. But why take any chances? Asics already has three speciality pickleball shoes in the market, with an acknowledgment in the thickly cushioned soles that this is a game played by all knee-types.

Asics running shoe sales everywhere — China and India in particular — began to soar, and so did profit margins. Asics was back as a relentless challenger to Nike and Adidas. The plan had originally envisaged ¥25bn of operating profits by December 2023, but the company in fact made ¥54bn. On the day it noticed the typo this week, Asics shares hit an all-time high some 450 per cent higher than where they had been in 2020.

In the years before its revival, Asics derived little pleasure from counting shoe brands worn by runners at events around the world and watching its primacy erode. In one particularly bleak moment in 2021, Asics discovered that not a single runner in the closely watched Japanese Ekiden relay marathon was wearing their shoes. Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon may provide happier news from the funish line.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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