Shoe Month: Alternative traction becoming norm

Monday, October 1, 2012

Among shoe geeks the debate to label the latest trend in the market place as "spikeless," "hybrids," "lifestyle" or "alternative traction" likely will go unsettled.

But whatever it's called, one thing nearly is certain: Footwear, without replaceable cleats, will multiply rapidly.

Virtually every major manufacturer is racing to offer more footwear options that don't have conventional cleats and receptacles. Of course, demands of serious golfers and those who fret about slipping will ensure plastic spikes keep a place in the game, but shoes that feature traditional traction systems seem destined to shrink in number.

Indeed, rising interest in alternative-traction shoes is causing companies to constantly revise their forecasts. In January, at the PGA Merchandise Show – the industry's largest trade expo held in Orlando – TaylorMade-Adidas Golf executive vice president John Kawaja predicted that shoes without replaceable cleats would account for 40 percent of all golf footwear sales within 24 months.

And in another five years, Ecco officials expect alternative-traction shoes will represent more than 75 percent of all sales.

Though there are numerous factors contributing to the sea change, one man can be credited as being the catalyst that ignited the trend: Fred Couples.

Industry observers say Couples' decision at the 2010 Masters to wear Ecco Street Premiere shoes – casual-looking footwear with a rubber sole and molded traction bars, but not a single, replaceable cleat – redefined consumers' notions of what a golf shoe could look like and how it should perform.

That casual look combined with extra comfort and cleat-less rubber soles – which afford golfers convenience and versatility to wear the same pair on the course and off it – exploded in popularity, literally creating a new category of footwear.

Though such shoes often are called "spikeless," many in the industry prefer "hybrid" to emphasize their dual function. Furthermore, they say the shoes do have rubber spikes or nubs; they're just not removable.

The term "lifestyle" also has come into vogue to describe these shoes because they can be used for everyday wear to get around town or simply to relax at a resort.

But footwear without replaceable cleats won't be restricted to this hybrid niche. As alternative traction continues to evolve and becomes more accepted, even shoes designed primarily for on-course wear likely will go cleat-less.

FootJoy provides an example of a shift in that direction: As an extension of its popular FJ Sport, which features nine replaceable cleats, the company introduced FJ Sport Spikeless. The athletically styled shoe, which offers bright color accents in orange, yellow and blue, showcases a DuraMax rubber outsole with aggressive treads but no conventional cleats.

The emergence of natural-motion shoes also will accelerate the growth of alternative traction. So-called "natural-motion" footwear, first popularized in the sport of running, features minimal structure and maximum flexibility to let the foot move as it was intended. Most golf shoes that adopt this design concept are created without cleats and receptacles. That's because their removal leads to lowering the shoe closer to the ground, better mimicking barefoot feel and motion. True Linkswear, for example, only manufactures natural-motion shoes and all of its models forgo replaceable cleats.

Advocates of alternative traction contend that many golfers will discover that they get more than the traction they need with rubber-grip outsoles. And considering that many players don't bother to replace their removable cleats, they say, alternative-shoes become an even more attractive option.

When purchasing footwear, golfers value performance attributes but "rank comfort well ahead of them," says Rob Rigg, founder of True Linkswear. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens." readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.