With sneakers slung around their shoulders and pockets full of cash, young boys huddle in hotel ballrooms and high school gyms, shouting and bartering as if they belong on a trading room floor.
“What do you want for them?” John Leonardo asked at one recent event in New Jersey.
“What’s your offer?” someone hollered back.
In a flurry of transactions, John, who is only 13 years old, bought, sold or exchanged 20 pairs of designer basketball sneakers and walked away with seven, four more pairs than he started with. His collection’s retail value climbed to $1,155 from $340.
John, an eighth-grade student from Manalapan, N.J., and thousands of other teenage “sneakerheads” have formed a thriving subculture using Instagram, Facebook and weekend conventions to spot, sell and trade coveted, sometimes limited edition pairs of basketball shoes.
Teenagers who have grown up with eBay and the Internet have learned the art of trading up, sometimes earning a profit in the process.
Jake White, 14, of Freehold, N.J., has 81 pairs in his collection, helped a lot by gifts from his parents. He estimates they’ve spent $11,000 on shoes and could probably make $20,000 if he sold them all. “I know just about everything about sneakers,” he said. “I only wear them in the summer because I don’t want to take down the value of them.”
While the lucrative retail business for sneakers — and the exclusive lines that attract overnight campers outside elite stores — have existed for decades, this teenager-filled marketplace (or high-end sneaker exchange) has spread from city to city in the last few years. It’s the latest phase — one whose staying power is unclear — of the sports footwear craze that began 30 years or so ago when the National Basketball Association forbade Michael Jordan, then a rookie, to wear his Nike Air Jordan 1’s on the court because they didn’t meet the dress code.
To this day, no player’s line comes close to Nike’s Jordan-branded footwear, sales of which reached $2.5 billion last year. Over all, basketball sneaker sales made up $4.5 billion of the total $21 billion athletic shoe business, according to Princeton Retail Analysis.
And the teenage traders attending these conventions know the market, reciting resale values, the buzz of a hot trade and the debut dates for new pairs as easily as others can spit out baseball stats.
Joseph Diorio, 34, the owner of SoleXChange, hosts and sponsors trading events in major cities like New York and Miami and likens the sneaker trading craze to the comic book business. “I think collecting sneakers will live on forever because there is a story behind every sneaker,” Mr. Diorio said.