One local giant has been conspicuously absent from the road-running scene: Nike.

“In the three years I’ve led this group there have been only two Nike road demos. I feel like I’ve seen the Hoka rep four times this year,” Eng said.

As the popularity of run clubs soared since Covid—among both runners and shoemakers—some members of the avid running community in the Portland area, near Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters, say the hometown brand has faded from the scene.

Nike, which has long monopolized the attention and wallets of avid runners, in recent years shifted its focus to other areas of its business including the release of limited-edition sneakers. Competitors swooped in, resulting in an increasingly fragmented market that has dented Nike’s finances and prompted a strategic reset at the sneaker company.

Nike on Thursday is expected to report that sales grew 1% for the full year—its worst results in more than two decades excluding the first year of the pandemic and the 2008-09 financial crisis. Executives acknowledge they lost ground in the critical running category and say they are doubling efforts to regain a stronger grasp of the market. They are betting that a new line of shoes will give it a boost during the Paris Olympics this summer.

“We underinvested in that, and that’s what we’re reinvesting in,” Nike Chief Executive John Donahoe said of the running category in an April interview.

Nike said in a statement that it has deep roots in the Oregon running community and that it helps runners perform better through its innovations. The company is doubling the size of a team of reps that meet with everyday runners and advise them on products. Nike said that it supports a range of run clubs in Portland and that it has partnerships with coaches and running ambassadors.

Run clubs, or crews, have been around for at least two decades, but they were largely exclusive to elite runners. The postpandemic running boom ushered in a new, more inclusive breed. These days, anyone can join a run on most clubs. Some designate people to start the route later to make sure no one is left behind.

Natalia Barwegen, who works in sales for an events company, started the FoPo Run Club in the Foster Powell neighborhood of Portland in early 2017. The 40-year-old ran by herself for a month before anyone else showed up. Now the club has about 60 regular runners who meet every Wednesday.

Barwegen started looking at who was tagged on Instagram posts from running stores and sent messages to those brand reps to get them to come to a FoPo run to do a demo, an event where brands let runners try on new shoes. Hoka was the first brand to show up about two years ago. and other footwear companies like Mizuno and Brooks soon followed. The first time she heard back from Nike was in late April, when a rep brought pairs of the Invincible 3 for runners to try on.

“Sometimes Nike reps focus on the cool hip groups downtown and the younger crew, and then forget about other clubs,” Barwegen said.

New Balance has field reps around the world who engage local running coaches and run club leaders, said the company’s vice president of running, Kevin Fitzpatrick. The goal is to make a connection with runners that they will remember next time they are looking for a new pair of shoes, Fitzpatrick said. “You don’t see the immediate return, but you do see it over time,” he said.

Zurich-based On takes a similar approach but also starts its own run clubs. Earlier this year the company opened a store in Portland, and it has unofficially taken over Wednesdays for run clubs by inviting others to its own, said Dan Schade, On’s general manager of the Americas.

Some run clubs say Nike has a strong presence. Amir Armstrong co-founded a run club out of the sneaker-themed Deadstock Coffee in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood. There are two running groups and a walking crew that meet every Tuesday, and during the summer the runs can draw over 100 people. When a brand comes, which happens almost every two months, it can be twice as many and it is like a block party, he said.

Nike shows up as much to the Deadstock Run Club as any other brand, Armstrong said. One of the sneaker giant’s reps has become part of the Deadstock community, he said.

“He runs with us. He’s led my crew sometimes when I have to go out of town for work,” Armstrong said.

Runners say the company doesn’t dominate the culture the way it once did largely because other companies have caught up by marketing themselves more aggressively on the ground. Run-club leaders say brands like Brooks, Hoka and Asics have tapped into members’ willingness to try something new—and switch if they like it.

“They’re really going with the brands that are coming more,” Eng said.

Write to Inti Pacheco at inti.pacheco@wsj.com



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