With Participation on the Rise, Why the Sport Sandal Is the Key to Winning in Water Sports

In the past few years, outdoor enthusiasts have discovered a number of new activities. And while much of the attention has been paid to hiking and trail running, several shoe brands are also responding to the surge in interest in water sports.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) participation in water sports over the past three years has increased for all age demographics. The highest three-year change was among Gen Z, where participation rose 34.9 percent for the period ended 2022. The percent change among millennials was 25.2 percent; Gen X was 23.5 percent and for baby boomers it was 18.4 percent.

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“People learned new activities during the pandemic, and I don’t think you unlearn those. If you had fun doing water sports, you’re going to continue to do that,” said Matt Powell, an advisor at Spurwink River consultancy.

SFIA groups several activities in the broader water sports category, including canoeing, kayaking, jet skiing, stand-up paddling, surfing and many more activities. This variety, Powell said, offers brands in the space great opportunity. “There’s a need for many kinds of shoes, and the aggressive brand is going to say, ‘We’re going to cover the waterfront and have shoes for every possible activity,’” he explained.

However, footwear brands that currently cater to water sports enthusiasts, said they’re more focused on providing a single style that can serve multiple customers and purposes.

Teva VP and global GM Anders Bergstrom believes that silhouette is the sport sandal. “There are those who will want a more innovative solution, more drainage, toe protection or better specific wet traction, but we try not to sub-segment to death because you can fragment really quickly and end up with a ton of niche stuff,” Bergstrom said.

He noted that Teva’s sales are led by performance-oriented sport sandals, and leading styles include the Hurricane XLT 2, the Tirra, the Verra and the Universal Trail.

Xero Shoes co-founder and CEO Steven Sashen said his team also emphasizes versatility and reliability for its sandals. The brand’s leading sport styles are the Z-Trail EV and the Aqua Cloud. “You know [the sandals are] going to stay on your foot. You don’t need to use it just for water sports and you’re fine walking around in a city,” he said.

Xero Shoes Aqua Cloud
Xero Shoes Aqua Cloud.Courtesy of Xero Shoes

Sashen also pointed out that sport sandals have a long history, which makes it an easier sell to customers. “You’re not trying to introduce some new idea. People are already sold on this concept of
a multipurpose product that’s water friendly,” he said.

Indeed, a sport sandal that’s tried and true is the Keen Newport, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Its staying power comes from its versatility, explained Keith Denny, VP of outdoor performance and kids at Keen.

“Trends come and go, but we believe that people are looking for utility and functionality in their everyday clothes and footwear,” he said. “[What’s more, the Newport] has served a need for sustainability by being both a versatile option for wear on water or land, and a long- lasting shoe that can be worn for years and years.”

Keen Newport Monochrome collection

Keen Newport Monochrome collection.Courtesy of Keen

Retailers have also benefitted from the universality of water-friendly sandals. Ed McAlister, owner of Tennessee-based River Sports Outfitters, said sport sandals account for roughly 30 percent of the store’s footwear sales during this time of year.

“You’ve got function, and they’re starting to look better,” McAlister said. “You must have a good sole that doesn’t slip on moss-covered rocks or the tube or a raft or a boat you’re paddling. And if you’re getting out to take a swim or to pull your boat up on the shore, you’ve got to have support and not feel the rocks under you.”

McAlister said Chaco and Keen have historically led sport sandal sales in his store. And as for other brands, he’s excited for what’s to come from Astral and Tread Labs in seasons ahead.

Tread Labs Albion sandal
Tread Labs Albion sandal launched for spring 2023.Courtesy of Tread Labs

Looking toward spring ’24, Bergstrom said Teva will launch a new technology called Terragrip, which he described as a very specific innovation designed to provide best-in-class wet traction. This technology will launch in both a sport sandal and a flip-flop.

Bergstrom added, “Outdoor brands don’t think as clearly about the water as they do the trail. Outdoor brands love lugs and talking about technology solutions that enable grip on rocky surfaces, but wet traction is a specific discipline, a specific technical solution.”

Powell agreed that the biggest challenge in the water-sports category is a lack of innovation.

“A lot of the shoes tend to be lightweight and are made with porous materials, so they drain quickly,” Powell said. “They don’t last that long, as opposed to a hiking boot with a Vibram outsole that could last a lifetime.”

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