Ellie Delphine wears an orange wool coat, New Balance sneakers shoes, on January 06, 2021 in Paris, France
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21 Things You Didn't Know About New Balance

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Ellie Delphine wears an orange wool coat, New Balance sneakers shoes, on January 06, 2021 in Paris, France
Edward Berthelot / Contributor / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images CC

Footwear Facts

A challenger brand from the outset, the New Balance marketing platform is "Fearlessly Independent Since 1906." Described by one executive as a "110-year-old start-up," New Balance has been reinventing itself for more than a century. In fact, it didn't even start out making shoes. Today, it's a global conglomerate with uniquely American roots and a history of innovation, controversy, and undeniable success.


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English footballer Eddie Hapgood (1908- 1973), captain of Arsenal F.C., discusses football boots with 'Cobbler' Lee, the team's shoe-maker, at Highbury, London, 22nd December 1937.
William Vanderson / Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

It Originally Sold Shoe Accessories

Irish immigrant William J. Riley founded the New Balance Arch Support Company in 1906 in Boston, where the New Balance corporate world headquarters remains to this day. At the time, Riley was one of many entrepreneurs selling accessories designed to make existing shoes fit more comfortably — Riley didn't and never would make or sell shoes himself. In fact, New Balance wouldn't sell its first sneaker until more than a half-century later in 1961 — but when it did, it would revolutionize athletic footwear forever. As of 2021, New Balance has been a shoe company longer than it hasn't, but not by long. 


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Cute baby chicken marching.
DaydreamsGirl/istockphoto

It All Started With Some Chickens

Riley got the idea for his arch support by watching his chickens and studying how their specialized feet gave them incredible balance. He developed an arch support device fitted with three points of support to mimic the three-pronged feet that gave his chickens their agility. They worked well and earned a big following, especially among men and women who worked on their feet for long hours. 


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Orthotics on a white background. Insert in shoes to support the foot. Natural leather medical insole
Liudmyla Liudmyla/istockphoto

In the Beginning, It Was a Family Affair

In 1956, Riley's daughter and son-in-law bought the company. By that time, New Balance's arch supports had earned the loyalty of a new customer base that would prove more lucrative than even the blue-collar demographic — athletes. Some even began contacting New Balance asking them for tailor-made athletic shoes.  

New Balance Trackster
Ebay

New Balance Gave Birth to the Modern Running Shoe

Realizing the potential of the burgeoning athletic market, Riley's daughter Eleanor and her husband, Paul Kidd, began working on a shoe designed specifically for athletes. In 1961, New Balance unveiled the Trackster, which the Kidds manufactured themselves in their home. It was the first athletic sneaker in history with a rippled sole designed to increase traction. It was a before-and-after moment for the sneaker industry. Colleges and other schools around Boston and across Massachusetts quickly adopted the Trackster as their cross-country and track shoe of choice and the rest of the budding industry raced to catch up. 


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Boston's Fenway Park
Hulton Archive / Staff / Getty Images CC

It Remained an Indie Shop For Years

Despite the success of the Trackster, it remained popular only to a niche market and the company was mostly not on the mainstream radar. Throughout the 1960s and into the '70s, New Balance remained a six-person operation that produced low-volume custom athletic shoes on a per-order basis. That, however, would soon change when one of the most successful and dynamic business leaders in modern American history recognized the potential in a tiny shoe shop in Boston — just as running was becoming the next big thing.

Trainer Jock Semple -- in street clothes -- enters the field of runners (left) to try to pull Kathy Switzer (261) out of the race.
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images CC

The Running Boom Launched a Movement — and a Market

Millions of Americans took up running in the 1970s as a perfect storm of events created what came to be known as the Running Boom. People were becoming more health-conscious in the '70s and celebrities — even President Jimmy Carter — began adopting the trend publicly. American Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972 and five years before that in 1967, Katherine Switzer used deception to break the gender barrier at the Boston Marathon, despite being assaulted in the process. Both the Seattle and the New York City marathons debuted in the 1970s, as did the famous Nike Waffle Shoe. The previously tiny niche market of running shoes and apparel was now an industry that was soaring toward the stratosphere.


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30th August 1965: Kenyan middle-distance runner Kip Keino wins the mile race from Alan Simpson and Czechoslovakian athlete Josef Odlozil at a meeting between Great Britain and Czechoslovakia
Robert Stiggins / Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

New Balance Hit its Stride in 1972

By 1972, all the pieces were in place. New Balance had carved out a reputation as an innovator in the running shoe world and its home city of Boston — host of the oldest and most famous marathon in America — was the center of the nationwide Running Boom. That year, a self-made businessman named Jim Davis bought the small Boston shoemaker called New Balance, which still had only six people on its payroll. 


Davis' brilliant and aggressive marketing campaigns hitched the New Balance brand to Boston's storied running history. The brand saturated the Boston Marathon and other major contests across the country as Davis leaned on the New Balance legacy as the true creator of the modern running shoe. Davis, who still leads New Balance today, is almost solely responsible for building a small Boston custom shoe shop into the $4 billion juggernaut it has become.


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The 320 Crowned New Balance King
Ebay

The 320 Crowned New Balance King

By the end of the 1970s, Davis had pioneered what would become another key part of the New Balance brand identity. To make it easier for runners to find just the right shoe, he assigned his shoes specific model numbers that represented different qualities, like stability, traction, or comfort. In 1976, the New Balance 320 hit the market. Like the Trackster before it, it was a watershed moment. Runner's World chose it as the best running shoe on the market and sales soared. Not coincidentally, it was the first time the company emblazoned a sneaker with its now-famous logo. Now, the 320 was the No. 1 running shoe on the market and the letter N was synonyms with excellence in running gear. 

New Balance Shoe Factory, Skowhegan, Maine
New Balance Shoe Factory, Skowhegan, Maine by David Wilson (CC BY)

It Rescued a Dying Sneaker Shop

The arrival of the 320 signaled the starting gun for an incredible run of growth and soaring demand. Just one year later in 1977, New Balance doubled its manufacturing space in Boston before it outgrew that and expanded to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Then, it branched out of its home state into Skowhegan, Maine. There, the Norwalk Shoe Company had not shared New Balance's good fortune or great leadership. The company went under, leaving a highly skilled workforce and a perfectly capable manufacturing facility behind. With everything in place, Davis made the wise move of simply setting up shop there in 1981. 


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New Balance Boston Landing Headquarters
New Balance Boston Landing Headquarters by New Balance Athletics, Inc. (CC BY-SA)

Its Headquarters Is Impressive — and Shaped Like a Chicken's Foot

New Balance is a Boston institution, and in 2015, it unveiled its brand-new, quarter-million-square-foot world headquarters at 100 Guest St. in Boston's Allston/Brighton neighborhood. A modern and interactive building, it doubles as a kind of museum that showcases the brand's long history and deep Boston roots. In the lobby, a sculpture stands on a tripod base that's designed to look like a chicken's foot. 

Close up detail of white and green New Balance cleats worn by Josh Reddick #16 of the Oakland Athletics during the game against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on Saturday, May 19, 2012
Brad Mangin / Contributor / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images North America / Getty Images CC

It's a Major American Manufacturer

The tags on most sneakers and athletic apparel come from far-away lands, but New Balance has kept a significant portion of its manufacturing operations right here in the U.S. the whole time. In fact, it's the only major company to produce or assemble four-million-plus pairs of sneakers in the United States every year. New Balance is truly the last big made-in-America sneaker company. 


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Made in the USA
Made in the USA by David Salafia (CC BY-ND)

It Buys American, Too

New Balance makes sneakers in five facilities in New England. There are the Boston and Lawrence sites in Massachusetts as well as the former Norwalk site in Skowhegan, Maine. The other two are also in Maine — at Norridgewock and Norway — and they all trace their roots to the early '80s boom years when New Balance cemented its role as a major player in the industry. Its commitment to domestic manufacturing moves down the supply chain. New Balance purchases supplies from domestic vendors whenever possible, and those suppliers employ 7,000 American workers. New Balance itself employs 8,000 people, 1,600 of which work in its New England sneaker factories alone.

New Balance 670 KG
New Balance 670 KG by dishwab (CC BY-NC-ND)

But It's a Multinational Corporation

Those 8,000 New Balance employees are spread out all over the world and the company sells its sneaks and athletic apparel in 120 counties. It doesn't just make shoes in New England, either. It's also a major manufacturer in Great Britain, where New Balance makes its shoes for the European market.   


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Made in the USA
Made in the USA by David Salafia (CC BY-ND)

It's Among the Biggest Private Firms

New Balance does $4 billion in revenue, but despite its size, the mega-corporation is not a publicly traded company. That means you can't buy shares in its stock on the open market like Nike or Adidas. It also means that it retains a level of freedom that is simply not possible for companies with shareholders. In 2020, New Balance was the No. 113 biggest privately held company in the United States, according to Forbes. 

New Balance 1225 Running Shoes
New Balance 1225 Running Shoes by slgckgc (CC BY)

In Specialty Running, New Balance Is Second Only to One

New Balance is classified as a specialty running brand. Its competitors are brands like Asics and Mizuno. The segment accounts for just 15 percent of the larger performance running shoe market, which is dominated by Nike. In the smaller pond of specialty running brands, Brooks is the leader by far, gobbling up more than 26 percent of the global market share. New Balance is No. 2, with about 14 percent. Saucony comes in at a distant third with less than 9 percent.


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Big red billboard for New Balance sports footwear manufacturer that also announces the NYC marathon.
Roman Tiraspolsky/istockphoto

Social Responsibility Is Baked Into its Brand

Sneaker production conjures images of desperate laborers toiling in sweatshops in poor countries. Often, that's par for the course, but New Balance seems to have legitimately taken steps toward social responsibility that go far beyond the standard corporate window dressing. Aside from its philanthropic foundation, New Balance's global and domestic initiatives deal with issues like product sustainability, human rights, women's rights, dignified labor, and environmental stewardship. New Balance is putting its money where its mouth is. 


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Donald Trump
Win McNamee / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America / Getty Images CC

Also, There Was the Whole Neo-Nazi Thing

On Nov. 15, 2016, just one week after Donald Trump was elected president, a prominent neo-Nazi declared that New Balance sneakers were the "official shoes of white people." It all started when a high-ranking New Balance executive came out in favor of Trump's rigid stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. As the only major company that still makes sneakers in the United States, its position on the issue certainly deserved consideration. The statement, however, was clumsy, politically charged, and went out of its way to praise Trump and condemn Barack Obama. 


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Trump Holds Campaign Event in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Mark Makela / Contributor / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America / Getty Images CC

It Started Out Bad and Quickly Got Worse

Shortly after, Jim Davis donated $400,000 to Trump's campaign. It appeared that both Davis and the executive who endorsed Trump's stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership had gone rogue, and New Balance quickly moved to assert its political neutrality. The court of public opinion, however, had made up its mind. Fair or not, both sides — Trump backers and Trump foes— now believed that New Balance was pro-MAGA. The company suddenly found itself where no corporation wants to be — at the center of a political storm without the ability to steer the ship. The public now linked New Balance not with support for a fairly obscure trade policy, but with the overriding anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment that had made Trump a darling of white supremacists from the beginning. Neo-Nazis began promoting New Balance as the go-to sneaker of the alt-right. Trump's opponents took to Twitter to literally set their sneakers on fire. 

New Balance Men's 623 V3 Casual Comfort Cross Trainer
Amazon

It Was All Part of a Larger Trend

It wasn't just New Balance. Several sneaker companies were swept into the political cauldron during the Trump years, most notably Under Armour. Unlike Nike, which made a calculated play to side with Colin Kaepernick, New Balance, Under Armour, and others watched helplessly as their brands were co-opted by causes that weren't part of their marketing strategies. 


An expert interviewed by GQ called the phenomenon "brand hijacking," which he described as "When a brand, through no active marketing of their own, happens to be picked up by a particular group." People think of hippies when they see Birkenstock sandals, for example, but that has been a boon for the company. No sane brand, on the other hand, wants its logo associated with swastikas — but when it comes to brand hijacking, the company doesn't get to choose. As the GQ article pointed out, "if you see enough N logos on people at an alt-right rally in Charlottesville, a subconscious association starts burrowing into your mind."

A factory worker at the New Balance shoe factory inspects products
Adam Glanzman / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America / Getty Images CC

Dollar Signs Caused a Flip Flop

New Balance's honeymoon with Trump's tough trade policies came to an end when the reality of its consequences began to set in. As previously stated, New Balance sources its manufacturing materials and supplies domestically when possible — but there's a whole lot of stuff it simply has to import from China and other places. Trump's trade war had made all of those imported supplies much more expensive and king cash compelled New Balance to turn on Trump. By June 2019, the company was coming out loudly and publicly against new rounds of tariffs proposed by Trump, claiming they would prevent New Balance from reinvesting in its American factories and workers. 


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Ellie Delphine wears an orange wool coat, New Balance sneakers shoes, on January 06, 2021 in Paris, France
Edward Berthelot / Contributor / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images CC

In the End, New Balance Shook the Stigma

Thanks both to brand hijacking and several unforced errors, New Balance's image took a beating during the Trump years. But in the end, New Balance did what it had always done — reinvented its image and positioned itself as the challenger. According to publications like Input Mag, New Balance has transformed itself into a potent streetwear brand that's primed for a post-Trump run beyond the marathons and tracks. Once seen as specialty sneakers for serious runners, New Balance became department store dad shoes in the eyes of the public, only to re-emerge as a political hot potato and now as a trendsetting fashion statement worn — and sometimes designed — by celebrities.  


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