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Banned basketball shoes: a reality check

October 22nd, 2010

A reader recently tipped me off about an interesting shoe technology story [thanks, Alexis!]. According to the company’s own press release, Athletic Propulsion Lab’s Concept 1 basketball shoe, featuring “Load ‘N Launch technology” is banned by the NBA because it provides an “unfair competitive advantage.”

Now, the first thing that came to mind when I read the press release was the brouhaha a few years about Spira’s spring-loaded running shoes, which they claimed were banned by USATF — despite assurances by USATF that they weren’t, in fact, banned! In fact, Spira is still using this supposed ban as a selling point:

We expect with time to have the rule overturned, but the mere existence of a rule that prohibits the use of our shoe for competition certainly provides us with a level of credibility. After all, if it wasn’t better, why would it be banned?

I think something similar is going on with the APL basketball shoe: from the press release, it sounds like they called the NBA and more or less begged them to ban the shoe. So what are these shoes supposed to do?

The technology itself features a unique device that serves as a “launch pad” housed inside a cavity at the front of the shoe, which compresses (The “Load” phase) and then releases (The “Launch” phase) as the athlete exerts force on the front of the foot.

The description of the technology’s benefits on the APL site provides a very nice lesson in the difference between science and salesmanship. To their credit, the company has performed a study comparing vertical jump in the fancy shoes versus ordinary basketball shoes, at an unnamed “leading West Coast university.” They even show the data (in graphical form) for the 12 subjects, and boast that participants saw “an increase of up to 3.5 inches instantly in their vertical leap.” Nowhere do they say anything about the average increase in vertical leap, let alone provide any information about statistical significance.

The problem is that, from the data they do show, it’s clear that only one person in the study (subject 4) came anywhere near an increase of 3.5 inches. The average looks to be a fraction of an inch at best. And we don’t know whether these were one-time tests — maybe subject 4 just had a bad jump in the regular shoes?

I give the company credit for at least paying lip service to idea that they should back their claims up with scientific studies. But what they’ve provided falls way short of the mark. If the results are so good, why not disclose all the details of the study? If they’re not that good, I guess they’ll have to rely on a bogus “ban” to get attention.

[UPDATE: a follow-up post on the banned basketball shoes here]

  1. Scott
    October 22nd, 2010 at 13:52 | #1

    See http://xkcd.com/808/. How long would it take you to come up with a handy Sweat Science version of this?

  2. Alexis Beauchamp
    October 22nd, 2010 at 15:06 | #2

    Good stuff, Alex. I think you might be right about all this being a marketing ploy… but I do have to say, as a 30 year-old rec baller, that I am a bit intrigued by the shoes (which do look nice, but sell for 300$!!)… even an inch added to my jumps, let alone two, would be a good help on the court :) but then again I’m probably too gullible!

    cheers
    alexis

  3. alex
    October 24th, 2010 at 00:09 | #3

    @Scott

    Ha, that’s classic, Scott! I could probably reclassify every post from this blog into a nice table like that. Of course, what’s most frustrating is that companies DO make a killing from lots of things that don’t really work…

    And Alexis, let me hedge my bets a bit. It’s possible that, even though this whole “so good they’re banned” schtick is silly and unsupported by the evidence they’ve presented, the shoes could still work. There are really two separate questions:

    (a) Do the shoes work?

    (b) Has the company presented sufficient evidence to allow us to judge whether they work?

    The answer to (b) is definitely no, but it’s still possible that the answer to (a) is yes. It’s just that they believe (probably with good reason) that marketing is more important than science to convince consumers. So if you’ve got $300 to burn and believe that a half-inch on your vertical could make a difference, then it’s worth a try!

    (Interesting thought experiment: Take two evenly matched teams. Give the shoes to one team, and give $300 worth of private lessons on shot mechanics and fundamentals of defense to the members of the other team, and see which team wins…)

  1. October 25th, 2010 at 06:58 | #1
  2. January 7th, 2011 at 13:07 | #2