PONY Up: How New York's Finest Sneakers Took Flight
Born in Manhattan back in 1972, long before anyone gave a flying Swoosh, Pony was founded by Uruguay-born entrepreneur Roberto Muller, a charismatic maverick who lived life by the seat of his pants. Literally the heart and sole of the company, Muller created Pony in his own image, which is to say it was equal-parts energetic, rambunctious and oh-so-ambitious. Within a few short years, this self-styled Yankee swagger had Pony strutting the globe at the vanguard of a new era in athletic colonialism.
But first, let’s rewind this story to 1969, a year of monumental unrest and social change in the USA. Richard Nixon was elected president, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and New York was at the epicentre of a rare sporting triple triumph. The New York Mets took home the World Series, Super Bowl III was won by the New York Jets then the following year the New York Knicks bagged their first title. It was an incredible sequence.
Meanwhile, the staid athletic industry plodded away, cobbling together myriad models for esoteric Olympic sports, prompting Muller to have a vision that would become the foundation of his fledgling company. Certain that casual sportswear would be the new wardrobe staple, he pitched the idea to his investors and Pony was born. As far as revolutionary foresight goes, Muller’s hunch seems an absolute no-brainer, but bearing in mind the ‘lifestyle’ category barely existed at this time, it was still considered a gamble. Sweat-pant chic was light years away. Sports shoes were strictly for the court, not the street, but Muller was adamant. He always was.
Thinking big was Muller’s other signature move. His personal legacy includes a dynamic role in the commercialisation of both the Olympics and World Cup soccer, stories that will deservedly be told another time. He also upped the ante with lucrative endorsement deals for professional sportsmen who had previously been paid in nickels, dimes and free sneakers. The first to fully realise the potential of global production, Muller also pushed the performance envelope with a number of innovations including a secret inflatable cushioning system that predated the Reebok Pump by more than a few years. With research labs in multiple locations, Pony was deadly serious about staying one step ahead of its competitors.
A quick study of the raw talent on the company roster in the 70s and 80s reveals a surprising number of household names. Pony athletes, like the brand, made it to the top on their own terms. They were the individuals; the entertainers; the iconoclasts. More often than not they were winners as well. But being a true Pony athlete meant being a team player – Muller fervently believing that was where the human sporting spirit shone brightest. While other athletic brands focused on solitary pursuits like running and tennis, Pony was all about making the team.
FOOTBALL AND BASEBALL
When it came to the great American pastimes of football, baseball and basketball, Pony was a magnet for extroverts. Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris wore Pony when he caught the ‘Immaculate Reception’ to clinch the Steelers’ first-ever playoff victory in 1972, a play that still ranks as one of the greatest in NFL history. Not to be outdone, the ragtag Oakland Raiders plundered the 1976 Superbowl wearing Pony, epitomising the brand’s freewheeling whatever-it-takes ethos. The 80s were also dominated by the arm of Dan Marino, who wore Pony cleats on the field and snazzy Pony deck shoes on his day off!
Baseball legends don’t get much bigger than Hank Aaron, who wore Pony on his way to hammering a new home run record. When you think baseball though, you naturally think New York Yankees. In the 1970s it was Reggie Jackson, Mr October himself, who carried the torch for Pony in the Big Apple, causing hysteria whenever he appeared in public. Even after leaving Yankee Stadium, Pony stood by their man as he spanked home run number 500 in 1984.
It was in basketball though, that Pony truly excelled. At one point they reportedly had 200 NBA stars on their roster, including such greats as Bob McAdoo, Cedric Maxwell, Earl Monroe, David Thompson, John Havlicek, Darryl Dawkins and the all-time phenom, Wilt Chamberlin, aka the Chairman of the Boards.
Perhaps Pony’s most memorable hardwood moment came when pocket-rocket Spud Webb took out the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk contest. An amazing achievement that contradicted his 5ft 7in frame, Webb’s tenacity and competitiveness came straight from the Pony playbook. Selling his pro-model known as City Wings with the slogan ‘Why get air when you can fly?’ was another balls-out indication of Pony’s cocksure confidence.
To be fair, Pony wasn’t just about endorsements at the elite level. Targeting football-mad Southern and Midwestern states like Texas, a seeding campaign that laced high school quarterbacks with a new model known subtly as ‘The Stud’ was typical of Pony’s inventive approach.
This cleated-turf-trainer-hybrid-boot became a fashion bonanza and a breakout success, selling millions of pairs. Over in New York, as the don of basketball sneakers Bobbito Garcia notes in his interview, Pony was also the first brand to be active at a local amateur level by sponsoring New York’s iconic Rucker Tournament. At the same time, Pony reps were flossing promising up-and-comers with free sneakers, an unheard-of marketing innovation at the time.
Casting the sporting search wider, Pony was also active in soccer, helping to bring the European game to the American heartland. Having first met Pelé while playing junior football in Uruguay, Muller made sure the Athlete of the Century was wearing Pony during his stint with the New York Cosmos. Pony also signed the controversial Paolo Rossi, who ended up leading Italy to the 1982 FIFA World Cup title, scoring six magical goals and winning Golden Boot honours in the process. Giorgio Chinaglia was another Cosmos player to wear a chevron on the pitch.
Despite Muller’s team-first decree, individuals would become part of the Pony family as the brand pressed on into new realms. Boxing was one sport earmarked by Pony, with Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and Muhammad Ali floating across the canvas in Pony, complete with giant silky chevron shorts to match. Gold-medal winning Mary Lou Retton somersaulted her way to Olympic fame with Pony emblazoned on her leotard. In tennis, Pony signed Tracy Austin, who won the US Open in 1979 and 1981. Big servin’ Roscoe Tanner and Australia’s Mark Edmonson were other Pony tennis signings.
With the enigmatic Muller always keen to embrace the counterculture, there is another dimension to the Pony story we uncovered during research for this book. A Thrasher magazine cover from July 1986 featuring Jesse Martinez wearing suspiciously red, white and black Pony hightops is evidence of a latent skateboarding chapter to this story. According to Muller, hip hop and Pony also snuggled up, flashing on the feet of Manhattan’s burgeoning b-boy and double dutch scene. High as a kite on street style, models like the MVP, Slam Dunk, Pro 80, Starter and City Wings were dipped in suitably full-flavour colourways.
As the disco era came to a close, Pony rolled with the punches. By 1986 however, Muller would reluctantly sell his share of the company to longtime friend and business rival Horst Dassler, son of adidas patriarch Adi Dassler. Lacking the guiding faith of its founder, Pony’s star gradually faded, changing hands and shedding its mojo year by year.
But that was then. This is now.
Some 40 years after the brand was born, Pony is back in the game. With its New York attitude restored and the official blessing of its founder and guiding force, this authentic sports brand is poised to once again deliver the goods.