Earlier this year, LetsRun published an article listing professional runners and other track and field athletes who had switched sponsors going into 2021. In a surprising twist, the company that appeared to be making waves (or, at least, impressive ripples) wasn’t an established behemoth like Nike or Adidas, but Puma—a brand whose presence on the running scene has at times felt analogous to the behavior of its elusive feline namesake. In recreational road races, Puma sightings are generally few and far between. According to sneaker retail guru and vice president of the NPD research group Matt Powell, Puma had a less than one percent share in the U.S. running shoe market in 2020.
Molly Seidel, who finished second in last year’s Olympic Trials marathon in her debut at the distance, is among the newly minted Puma athletes. “When the opportunity first presented itself in the latter half of 2020, I was like, ‘Really? Puma?’” Seidel told me. She hadn’t run in the brand before, but was favorably impressed after initially taking matters into her own hands. “I didn’t really know anything about their shoes. I bought my first pair of Pumas, a pair of SPEED 500s, on Amazon, just to try them out. I was like: ‘Oh, this could work,’” Seidel said. After Puma gave her one of their new prototypes to test, Seidel says that she became convinced that the company’s product “could compete with the best of what’s out there.”
Puma also recently signed Olympic steeplechaser Aisha Praught-Leer, as well as several giants of the pole vault scene, including Olympic medalists Sandi Morris of the U.S. and the elastic Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie. Recent NCAA all-Americans Taylor Warner, Steven Fahy, and Fiona O’Keeffe will be joining a Puma-sponsored elite distance team based out of North Carolina, as Pascal Rolling, Puma’s head of running sports marketing, recently told Larry Eder of RunBlogRun in an interview. The move recalls last year’s announcement from the Swiss running shoe brand On that it was launching a Boulder-based pro team.
Unlike On, however, which was started in Zurich in 2010, Puma is not a young company trying to make a name for itself, but a 70-year-old legacy brand. Puma has generally been more cautious about leveraging its pedigree for marketing purposes compared with, say, Nike, which lionizes its late co-founder Bill Bowerman as the waffle-iron wielding visionary. While Nike was founded in 1964, Puma had its genesis decades earlier.
Any self-respecting sneakerhead already knows the story: in the early 1920s, Rudolf and Adolf Dassler started the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. Their products included athletic footwear like soccer cleats and track spikes; at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the great American sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens won four gold medals wearing Dassler-made shoes. After World War II, a fraternal rift caused the Dasslers to part ways. Rudulf founded Puma in 1948, and Adolf started Adidas the following year. Although the Dasslers were also pioneers in the sneaker game, the fact that they haven’t been given the full Bowerman treatment by their respective brands might have something to do with the fact that both men were at one point members of the Nazi party. Like much of German industry during the 1940s, the Dassler factory was used to manufacture weapons for the war effort. (A biographical account from the Adi & Käthe Dassler Memorial Foundation maintains that the brothers were pressured to join the Nazi party if they wanted to remain in business. Neither brother was convicted of crimes after the war.)
Puma evolved into one the largest athletic apparel brands in the world, even as it’s been overshadowed by its cross-town rival. The company is also deeply ensconced in track and field lore. At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila was wearing Pumas when he won the marathon, defending his victory from the ’60 Games in Rome where he famously competed barefoot. U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raced in Pumas when they won gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meters at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, setting the stage for their iconic medal stand protest. In the early nineties, right around the time Reebok launched its infamous Pumps, Puma introduced its own weird new lacing concept, the Puma Disc, which received a sterling endorsement at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when Puma-sponsored athletes Linford Christie (100-meters) and Dieter Baumann (5,000-meters) both won gold in their respective events. (In the late nineties both men would be suspended for doping violations. Less sterling.)
And then there’s Usain Bolt. Bolt, who was sponsored by Puma for his entire career, wasn’t just the world’s preeminent sprinter from the mid-aughts until his retirement in 2017, but an athlete whose outsized persona and talent transcended the insular world of professional track and field. But not even Bolt, endowed as he was with near supernatural ability, could change the fact that the Olympic spotlight only shines once every four years, which might explain why it sometimes felt like Puma was perpetually skulking around the shadows of the global running scene—despite its deep running roots and having the sport’s biggest celebrity touting its wares. Granted, Bolt made his magic in sprint spikes—not exactly a mass market item—but, at least from this peanut gallery vantage point, it seemed like Puma could have been making a bigger splash in the wider running space.
Then again, a high-wattage endorsement can only go so far if you don’t have the goods to back it up. In 2019, Aaron Dodson wrote a story for The Undefeated called “The Forgotten History of Puma Basketball.” The article chronicles the brand’s history of sponsoring NBA players, including their ill-fated collaboration with aerial maestro Vince Carter, who signed a ten-year, $ 50 million deal with Puma in 1998, only to part ways with the company and sign with Nike in mid-2000. In the piece, Puma brand director Adam Petrick admits that part of the problem was that “the product itself wasn’t that good.” As Petrick told Dodson: “If you look back at Puma’s arc in the last 30, 40 years, that’s where the challenges came for us. We were really strong in marketing but lost our way from a product standpoint.”
On the distance running front, the importance of being on solid ground “from a product standpoint” couldn’t be greater than during our tortured super shoe era. While no rational person would claim that Bolt wouldn’t have dominated sprinting if he had been a Nike or Adidas athlete, the increasingly irrefutable link between advances in shoe tech and improved athletic performance is forcing elite runners to be even more careful when assessing shoe sponsorship options.
“So much of distance running right now is about having a really good, carbon-plated super shoe to run in,” Seidel says, in a candid recognition of a new reality that not every elite runner has been keen to acknowledge. Seidel told me that she ran workouts in Puma’s new racing shoe—the Deviate Elite, which is slated to go on sale in early March—before making the commitment. The fact that she found the results encouraging enough to sign a contract bodes well for the brand, though it remains to be seen how Puma’s latest foray into running will play out. They’ve been here before.