Inspired by Ekiden, Asics eyes North American turn around to challenge Nike

Unless you live in Japan you probably don’t know the Ekiden (literally ‘station to station’). It’s an inter university relay race held early in the New Year from Hakone near Mt Fuji right into the centre of Tokyo.

This January, Aoyama Gakuin won the 98th Ekiden with a record time.

Japan’s Ekiden

In my mind, it’s a little bit like the Oxford & Cambridge boat race, people throng the roads cheering on the runners, it’s a great TV spectacle with lots of live plus archive footage; and the winter scenery is stunning. Of course there are some critical differences too; more teams, it lasts two days and there aren’t any boats.

Japanese sportswear brand, Asics performed particularly well this year. 24 athletes wore Asics shoes, the previous year not one runner wore them.

Asics is a understated Japanese success story. Ironically, to my mind at least, it doesn’t have any Japanese imagery either. Actually 70% of the company’s sales are international which is unusually high for a Japanese consumer products business.

Outside the home market, Europe and the Middle East is the biggest region, bigger surprisingly than North America.

The Americas have proven challenging for Asics. In 2020 growth was negative and operating margins were red.

Recent data suggests that as with Ekiden, in North America ‘Running Specialty’ has upped its pace and Asics tennis range is hitting a few aces fuelling a 50% jump in North American revenue. Asics has also embraced the digital world, key for its target market. For example, Sunrise Red was an NFT launched last July.

Many moons ago Asics had a relationship with Nike but that fell apart at the seams.

The stock market is betting that Asics will pull ahead too. According to the Financial Times analysts’ median price estimate for the stock are around 50% higher than current levels.

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