A lot of us are completely okay with snatching a good pair of hoop shoes to play ball in. But I know some of you would like to delve deeper, so here’s a hooper’s guide on how basketball shoes are made.
SHOW TABLE OF CONTENTS
- An Important Disclaimer
- How Basketball Shoes Are Made: The Premise
- Making of Each Component
- Putting it All Together
- Bonus Keys to Know
But it’s not just any guide. I tried my best to make it as accessible as possible regardless of your knowledge. I’m no expert in shoe design either but having both a long-time passion and enough time means I’m able to put together information that’s insightful AND easy to comprehend.
I’ll break down the base structure of the entire shoe creation process, detail how each component is crafted, break down the phases in putting the pieces together, and give you some key takeaways that should both give you some insight and answer some questions.
I. AN IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER
First things first, you MUST know a few things before we can get into the spicy stuff
WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING? GOOD LUCK
You should know that almost NO ONE except the teams behind the shoe’s entire creation process can tell you the exact details of how a sneaker is being made from A to Z.
The reason I’m saying this is because I have no doubts that there are sources claiming they know all the intricacies behind crafting hoop shoes.
First of all, the exact methods of making basketball shoes (or any shoes for that matter) are very rarely shared. This is true both for our beloved brands like adidas, Nikey, and Jordan and for the smaller fish out there, regardless of the sport or type of shoe.
It is their product and their piece of creative property, so the chances of you finding out the particular creation process for a particular sneaker in great detail are quite low.
Another reason for this is competition.
Publicly sharing behind the scenes looks in great detail & frequency would go against their logic. It is why shoe technologies or new innovations are heavily marketed as industry-leading or more effective than the last iteration.
We’ll never really know how Nikey’s Zoom Air is made from scratch, or what’s the exact compound formula for adidas’s Boost foam. But we’ll keep buying the products because they feel good AND we’re encouraged to do so by the companies’ PR.
They cannot afford to share their manufacturing secrets and insights in order to stay competitive, and the amount of information that’s shared in terms of manufacturing is consciously controlled by every shoe brand.
So, unless you’re reading information from some kind of an insider or watching someone actually having direct access to companies’ labs and factories – DON’T believe they have it all uncovered somehow.
EACH BRAND DOES THEIR OWN THING
Additionally, you can find a bunch of articles detailing the basketball shoe-making process online and it could sometimes seem like it’s a universal formula across many manufacturers.
That’s simply not the case. Yes, the base premise of how basketball shoes are made is similar across most shoemakers.
After all, a lot of heavy lifting is done via the use of sophisticated machines, a lot of stuff is automated, and seeking what kind of tools manufacturers use for the biggest tasks is not exactly a big secret.
With that being said, there are still A LOT of smaller details that differ from brand to brand and even within the same manufacturer. Nikey is making heaps of different sneakers, and so is adidas, Jordan, Under Armour, Reebok, and others.
Things like the order in which tasks are done, how the same types of equipment differ from brand to brand, how much manual work the creation formula involves – such details can almost never be the same across different sneaker companies.
There is no one-for-all method of making basketball shoes and, once again, if someone tells you otherwise – run away. Maybe not literally, but you get the point.
WE CAN STILL GET A GRASP OF THE WORK
We now know that it’s virtually impossible to detail the entire intricate process of making basketball shoes because the exact details are rarely accessible to the public AND because the road from 1 to 100 isn’t the same for all manufacturers.
However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t get a rough idea of the base process, like the most critical and biggest tasks, and the rough order in which they are done.
Basketball shoes are difficult to perfect since there are so many things that are involved and it’s a lengthy process due to the need for constant wear-testing by athletes after each change. It’s an athlete’s shoe after all.
I’ve racked up as much information from various credible sources as I could to give you an idea of the process.
It wasn’t easy but you can be sure that even though you won’t know everything after reading this, you’ll at least know what the regular consumer (like me) CAN know about the whole thing as of now.
Let’s get into it.
II. HOW BASKETBALL SHOES ARE MADE: THE PREMISE
Here’s an overview of the process from 0 to 100
While each manufacturer does things in their own fashion, the process of building a performance sneaker usually consists of 4-6 phases. This is based on Business Insider’s video on how New Balance makes their sneakers.
The process of making basketball shoes is very similar to NB’s performance footwear, so the number of phases and processes required to finalize the product won’t be far off at all.
- Phase 1 usually means finalizing the designs and prep work
- Phase 2 involves the initial stitching of the uppers
- Phase 3 is where hand stitching comes into play as certain areas can’t be precisely perfected with machines
- Phase 4 is the assembly phase – this is where different parts of the shoe are attached together and a sneaker emerges
This is New Balance’s process of making their shoes.
For other brands’ hoop shoes, things can be a bit different: we don’t know when the finalized materials are cut out to begin the stitching, we don’t know which phase processes like labeling or molding support components take place in.
There are simply a lot of things we don’t know, so we can only assume based on the information we have.
DURATION OF THE PROCESS
A new entry to most basketball shoe lines is being released once per year but coming up with the concepts and creating the design can begin much earlier.
Companies like Nike and adidas already have concepts prepared a year or even multiple years in advance to be able to keep up with the demanding market and launch every new sneaker entry on time each calendar year.
Athletes begin wear-testing these models long before we see them on their feet in games. Don’t think that each new shoe has been thought of and built within 365 days – it’s usually not.
However, we’ll never really know more specific timeframes than that. Companies are very careful to share information on the duration of manufacturing, so that’s as good as we’re going to get.
But after the concepts are created and the design team has a rough idea of what and how they want to build a basketball shoe, it’s time to get to work.
DESIGNING THE SHOE
Before a basketball sneaker can even be built, the design team has to come up with various concepts that they usually draw by hand.
Eventually, the team finalizes how the end product should look and this model now needs to be digitally designed in 3D. This has to be in great detail and precision because materials will need to be stitched and cut out solely based on the digital model.
John Santos has an excellent YouTube video giving us a behind-the-scenes look at how this is done.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE BUILT
After the designs, details, and dimensions are finalized, components that make up the shoe need to be crafted. Brands usually already have large stocks of pre-built components that they use for a lot of their shoes. Those pieces are then tailored to specific shoes.
There are several components that need to be created and assembled together to make up a basketball shoe:
- the upper
- the midsole
- the outsole
- the laces
- other components like heel counters, torsional plates, etc.
WHAT COMES AFTER
Production production production.
After enough stock has been manufactured, sneakers are packaged, insured by a third-party company, and then transported to the designated retail locations, usually by ships.
Soon after, marketing campaigns are launched by the shoe companies to spice up their new releases and encourage people to buy the new entries.
We do know the exact profit reports by big brands such as Nike and adidas since they are public in this regard. However, excluding numbers and dates, any other information on production and marketing is extremely scarce.
III. MAKING OF EACH COMPONENT
From the outsoles all the way to the upper: here’s how manufacturers craft each piece from scratch
Now that we’re aware of the entire process (roughly), let’s talk about each individual component that needs to be created in order to make up a performance basketball shoe.
The upper designers of the shoes make large pieces of material that are then cut out precisely by the information that’s passed over from the 3D models with the use of a laser.
A basketball shoe is usually made with multiple pieces of cut-out material that are then stitched together – it’s not just one piece of material that’s slapped onto the sole. There have been cases of such a method for some shoes but that’s not the norm.
In terms of the material compounds themselves, we don’t know much as there are dozens of different combinations that are used today.
Brands are shifting towards lighter, thinner, and more flexible choices, and this means that synthetic blends are much more common than raw materials like leather or nubuck.
At some point, stitching together different materials is involved both by hand and with the help of automated machines. We rarely see just one material that goes into building the uppers.
There’s commonly a base layer of material such as mesh but other compounds are often stitched, glued, or heat welded into the base layer for added strength. Those could be Fuse, nylon, or even pieces of raw materials.
LeBron’s main shoe line, for example, often goes a step further. Some of the older iterations like the LeBron 12 take advantage of plastic plates that are molded and pressed onto the upper for unprecedented containment.
Midsoles for basketball shoes aren’t just platforms our foot sits on top of. They’re sophisticated cushioning systems that absorb impact when we land, jump, or perform other movements that involve contact with the ground.
The energy that’s absorbed is returned to the wearer causing a spring-back effect.
Midsoles are usually made up of different compounds of foam. The most common compounds are EVA and PU. Adidas’s cushion technology Boost, for example, is made by heat welding thousands of tiny foam pellets into one continuous shape.
I’d imagine most other cushioning systems in the form of foam are created in a similar fashion. It’s also known that some manufacturers use the blowing method to form a larger, distinct shape out of smaller foam pellets.
We also do know that A LOT of wear-testing is involved to perfect the formula. Athletes are regularly requested to test out each change in the formula, even if it’s a tiny alteration.
There are also other forms of cushioning other than foam. Take Nikey’s Zoom Air. These are pressurized capsules that compress and spring back to their original shape thanks to tightly knit fibers inside them.
Although used more rarely, other companies like Reebok use gel-based cushion as well. Gel has a natural tendency to compress and distribute the wearer’s weight evenly due to silicone as the main ingredient of Gel.
This is the component that basically makes or breaks the shoe. Without an outsole with quality rubber and a proper pattern, hoopers would slide all over the place as they wouldn’t receive proper traction on a variety of surfaces they play on.
Because of this, manufacturers have perfected several reoccurring traction patterns that are widely used across many brands. Such patterns are achieved by monitoring athletes’ movements and digitally capturing the data.
Unlike the rest of the shoemaking process, the creation of outsoles is very similar regardless of the maker.
Basketball shoe outsoles consist of natural rubber and sulfur. There can be additional ingredients to color the outsoles. For example, carbon is infused into the mix in order to make a black outsole.
The mixture of rubber, sulfur and other needed ingredients is put into a metal mold in the shape of the desired outsole. A heated press machine is used to fuse the top and bottom portions of the outsole. It is also used to perforate the needed thread in the outsole.
The final product is perfected by hand, as there can be many inconsistencies that need to be polished.
I should mention that Under Armour, in particular, has launched their Flow line of performance shoes which don’t have any rubber. It’s a pretty rare occasion but it’s worth a mention since Flow sneakers are actually really good.
Flow is one continuous piece of foam that makes up both the cushion and traction of the shoe. A lot of extra weight is shed due to this method. The Curry Flow 9 is a great example of such a design.
Synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, and polypropylene are now the go-to choice for creating shoelaces while natural compounds like cotton were more common back in the day.
Braiding machines are used to weave the lace fabrics into braids. These machines can produce over a hundred laces in the course of 30 minutes.
The tips of the laces are made of plastic and are attached to the actual laces with the use of another machine. The braided fabrics are immersed in acetone, then they are inserted into a die that holds the acetate tape, and finally, this die is heated and pressed.
This ensures that the tips are permanently attached to the fabric. The laces are then hung to dry.
Basketball sneakers need additional support/security components in order to achieve a balance between mobility, comfort, and structure.
This is achieved by implementing heel counters, torsional plates, and even whole support chassis systems.
Most of such components, particularly for hoop shoes, are made from TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). It’s a hard plastic but one that can be molded into a specific shape.
Rubber heel counters were more common a few years ago but synthetic compounds in the form of plastics have pretty much taken over by now.
IV. PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
After each piece has been created & inspected, here’s how individual components become basketball shoes
Here comes the meat of the entire process. The designs have been finalized, the components have been built and the vision for the final product is there.
It’s time to put the pieces together and create a basketball shoe. Or any other performance sneaker for that matter. The differences between putting together a basketball shoe and any other performance shoe are extremely marginal.
BUILDING THE UPPER
Assembling the upper portion of the shoe involves cutting out all the pieces of material needed: the sides, the front, the heel, and others. These are then stitched together via sewing machines.
Sometimes, manufacturers cut out an exact continuous sheet of material that’s needed for the entire upper which is then stitched together.
After the upper is done, labels are also pressed onto the shoe, the lining is cut out which is either glued or stitched in key areas. If the shoe utilizes a standard lace & tongue construction – the tongue is also cut out and stitched to the build.
The final phases of the upper assembly can involve hand stitching as some of the finer detail cannot be achieved in an automated process.
Lastly, the finished upper goes through the lasting process. A lasting machine is used which resembles the shape of the shoe internally. This press is then stuffed into the upper in order to form a distinct shape. This is done thanks to sturdy metal lasting machines and the use of heat in the process.
Of course, each upper is inspected and then passed on to the next phases.
ATTACHING THE NEEDED COMPONENTS
Performance footwear usually involves additional components that need to be attached, such as plastic heel counters or torsional support plates. Anything that involves plastic internally is attached to the midsole.
Additionally, some brands like Nikey use their proprietary cushion technology that’s not in the form of a midsole. Of course, Nikey always uses a midsole too but they tend to implement their Zoom Air, Air, or Max Air tech as a complementary system.
Those cushion units are either inside the rubber sole or stitched directly to the upper for maximum feedback underfoot.
THE OUTSOLE & MIDSOLE
Attaching the outsole with the midsole is a fairly simple process. The rubber outsole portion is either glued or heat-pressed to the midsole. Or both.
This basically forms what we often refer to as a sole. It is then attached to the upper with the use of adhesive and also a press machine which ensures the upper is connected evenly and with proper force.
Finally, after the shoe has been fully assembled, it’s time to delast it. This means that the last is now removed from the upper as it was in place for enough time to fully form the final shape of the shoe.
And that’s pretty much it! The final product goes through inspection as each pair is quality controlled and then packaged to go to retail.
V. BONUS KEYS TO KNOW
I’ve rounded up some additional things that are interesting & insightful for you to be more aware of the wild industry we’re fans of
I thought I’d include some answers to questions you might have in terms of anything related to making hoop shoes. Always good to have some extra insight or additional things to know before buying your next pair!
– WHY DO SHOES FIT DIFFERENTLY EVEN IF THEY’RE MADE BY THE SAME BRAND?
The last that’s used to form the upper is basically the entire foundation of the shoe’s fit. The wider/taller the last, the more room you’ll have for your foot inside the shoe and vice versa. There can always be certain inconsistencies during this process, even in the same factory.
Perhaps some pairs weren’t lasted for as much time as other pairs. There could be several reasons as to why.
– WHAT DO THESE LABELS LIKE EP OR PF MEAN ON BASKETBALL SHOES?
Basketball shoes manufactured in China are typically built with a wider last since the majority of their population has wider feet. In terms of Nike, they’re also made with more durable XDR rubber as a good chunk of China’s recreational basketball is played outdoors.
These shoes will be labeled, indicating that they’re built overseas.
- EP (enhanced performance) is Nikey’s labeling
- PF (performance fit) is Jordan’s labeling
- GCA (Greater China Area) is adidas’s labeling
If you’re a wide footer like me, you’ll likely come across a lot of shoes that simply aren’t for you, even if you picked the size correctly. This is why it’s a great idea to track down an overseas-made version with one of those labels if you really want a particular model but you’re not sure if it’ll fit you.
Thanks to WearTesters, there’s a fantastic seller on eBay that sells a lot of the newly released basketball shoes from overseas, so they’ll have those labels and will offer wider fits. The seller is Id4Shoes – check ’em out!
– WHY DO I SEE THE SAME TECHNOLOGY NAMES ACROSS NIKE & JORDAN?
Jordan brand is co-owned with Nikey, so their assets are shared. Some Jordan hoop shoes are made in the same factories as Nikey products.
This is also why you commonly see the same tech shared across both trademarks: Zoom Air, React, Lunarlon, Flyknit and others can be seen both on Nike and Jordan sneakers.
– WHAT EXACTLY GOES AFTER THE SHOE’S MANUFACTURING PROCESS?
This is where production kicks in. After the shoes have been built and enough stock packaged, the shoes are put into large containers and transported from the local factories all the way to retail warehouses of stores.
The detailed process is unknown and not publicly shared by any major shoe company.
– HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO MAKE A BASKETBALL SHOE?
While we don’t have exact information specifically for hoop shoes, Athletic Interest has an awesome video that’s based on insider information on various running shoes. The author behind Solereview is to be thanked for the detailed reports and insights.
We can still get a pretty good idea of the costs since running shoes and hoop shoes use a lot of the same materials, technologies, and design principles.
The costs to manufacture each model aren’t the only costs brands need to pay before the shoes appear on the shelves.
There are also transporting costs, insurance costs in case transporting goes wrong, U.S. customs fees, taxes, and others.
Based on the reports by Solereview, adidas makes roughly 2$ off of a $100 running sneaker and Nikey makes $5. Obviously, this isn’t fully accurate as we do not have the information to make the calculations precisely.
But the idea is that none of the companies we know don’t make as much off of just one pair as some people tend to think. They sell billions of pairs worldwide – and that is what brings them the big bucks. Brand authority.
Now that you know how basketball shoes are made – it’s time to sum things up and extract the key takeaways
Let’s wrap up the guide on how basketball shoes are made.
I had a blast putting this one together and I’m sure some of you will find a gem or two that will prove to be useful, or at least interesting. Making basketball shoes is a very intricate process that we’ll never know the exact details of but for now – this should be enough to get a good idea of the journey.
Let’s extract the main takeaways to remember after reading the guide:
- we will never know the exact process of shoemaking as many details aren’t publicly shared
- if someone tells you there’s a universal formula that all manufacturers use to build their shoes – they’re lying
- even with limited information, we can still get a rough grasp of how a basketball shoe is made
- making a performance shoe consists of 4-6 phases
- the use of synthetic compounds has taken over: lightweight fabrics, knits, and wovens are now the go-to instead of raw material choices
- the entire creation process, in a nutshell, involves 3D modeling a shoe, cutting out the material based on the data, stitching it together, assembling other components, lasting, attaching the sole with the upper, and delasting
- a large portion of basketball sneakers created by major brands are manufactured in Asia and then later shipped to other countries
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
As the guide comes to a close, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts on it. Does it seem like a difficult process at first glance? Do you have any questions regarding the entire journey from A to Z?
As I’ve stated earlier, I’m definitely not an expert shoemaker nor do I specialize in sneaker design but being a long-time follower of the industry and a huge fan of hoops, I poured my heart into this one.
If your passion is as strong as mine – then I’m sure you’ll have some questions!