Inside look at Puma Basketball's resurgence after 20-year hiatus

Inside look at Puma Basketball's resurgence after 20-year hiatus

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Inside look at Puma Basketball's resurgence after 20-year hiatus

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Last June, Puma decided to return to the basketball space after a 20-year hiatus. Rather than doing so quietly, the German-founded brand turned heads by making a series of splashy moves.

In the days leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft, Puma surprised everyone with several announcements that showed the world they were serious about competing with the major brands in the basketball space.

Over the course of a few days, Puma signed longtime partner Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, announced that Jay-Z would be the Creative Director of Puma Basketball and signed deals with five top draft prospects: Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton (No. 1), Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley III (No. 2), New York’s Kevin Knox (No. 9), Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14) and Philadelphia’s Zhaire Smith (No. 16).

In one week, Puma Basketball went from defunct to home of the draft’s top two picks and one of the world’s biggest taste-makers.

They filled out their roster with talented veterans such as Golden State’s DeMarcus Cousins, San Antonio’s Rudy Gay, Boston’s Terry Rozier, Toronto’s Danny Green and four-time WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith. They also signed a number of brand ambassadors including ESPN’s Jalen Rose, Dallas Mavericks assistant coach God Shammgod and NBA trainer Chris Brickley.

How did Puma pull this off? HoopsHype talked to some of the brand’s higher-ups along with players who joined Puma to find out what went on behind the scenes of this resurgence and learn where the company plans to go from here.

***

Before breaking down Puma Basketball’s comeback, it’s important to understand the company’s history in this space. Young fans may not realize just how many great NBA players have worn Puma shoes.

Over the years, the brand’s roster has included Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Alex English, Ralph Sampson, Terry Cummings, Bobby Jones, Manute Bol, Cedric Ceballos, Kenny Anderson, Sam Perkins, AC Green and Buck Williams among others, as detailed by The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson in this terrific article on Puma’s hoops history.

However, many of the partnerships were short-lived. Carter, for example, was only with Puma for 16 months despite initially signing a 10-year deal worth $50 million. His departure is what led to the brand shifting their focus away from basketball, beginning their two-decade hiatus.

While Puma succeeded in attracting talent back in the day, the general consensus is that they were producing mediocre shoes and that’s why many of the partnerships didn’t last long. Puma’s Global Director of Brand and Marketing Adam Petrick admitted as much, telling The Undefeated “the product itself wasn’t that good.” This lines up with a USA TODAY report from April 2000 that stated Carter left Puma because the shoes hurt his feet.

It certainly seems that the brand has learned from those past mistakes. Now, they’re determined to produce top-notch sneakers and comfort is their main focus so they can form long-term relationships with the athletes they sign. The Clyde Court Disrupt was the first shoe that Puma Basketball released after their comeback and while it was inspired by the old-school Puma Clyde, comfortability and a modern feel were prioritized.

“We started sketching designs almost a year out and it took us a long time to land on the direction we wanted to go in,” Petrick told HoopsHype. “In the end, it was all about stripping things back and focusing on the classic look and the design aesthetic of the original Clyde’s. What would that shoe look like if we had designed it in 2018 rather than 1972? That was the process.”

Also, it’s worth noting that if a player has a specific issue with how a shoe feels, the company will tweak the sneaker until the athlete is happy. Last summer, Ayton had some issues with how his shoes were fitting because of his size-18 feet. The design team kept modifying the center’s sneakers until he was ultimately satisfied, and now he’s thrilled with his custom pairs.

Danny Green was admittedly hesitant about signing with Puma initially because he wasn’t sure if he’d like the feel of their basketball shoes, but he was pleasantly surprised when he got a chance to try a pair on.

“They’ve always been good when it comes to fashion and style; I already knew the lifestyle shoes were great. Initially, my only reservations were the basketball shoes,” Green told HoopsHype. “But then once I tried them on, I was like, ‘Man, these are comfortable!’ By now, every company has the scientific cushion and all that, so they aren’t too different from each other. They all know what’s good for the foot. Once I knew that I could play in the basketball shoe, it was an easy decision for me.”

DeMarcus Cousins, who was previously with Nike, told Nice Kicks without any prompting that the Clyde Court Disrupt is “the most comfortable shoe I’ve ever put on, by far, when it comes to hoops.”

Similarly, part of what sold Terry Rozier on Puma over other brands that were pursuing him when he was a sneaker free agent was how the shoes felt when he first tried them on.

“Obviously, I got to try them on way before I actually wore them out on the court and I’ve liked the support that they offer [ever since],” Rozier told HoopsHype’s Bryan Kalbrosky. “I even wanted to sign with them earlier than I did… It was a no-brainer for me.”

***

While it seems crazy now given Puma’s success landing players, Petrick was initially worried that they’d have trouble filling their roster because they had been out of the space for so long.

Petrick was confident that they’d make a quality basketball shoe, but he wasn’t sure if players would be open-minded enough to get on board.

“We definitely had concerns about how we would bring players in – for sure,” Petrick said. “Anytime you’re entering a performance category for the first time in 20 years, [it’s difficult]. You have to remember, it’s not new for us to develop high-end performance product. We outfit Usain Bolt. We outfit some of the best fútbol players in Europe. We’re accustomed to dealing with the needs of elite athletes. But when you enter a new performance category, you have to meet all of the physical expectations that players have for your product. And it’s a little bit of a convincing act.”

Ultimately, Puma managed to land more players than most outsiders expected. The top draft prospects were perhaps the biggest surprise, considering Ayton, Bagley, Knox, Porter and Smith weren’t even alive to witness Puma’s past success in the space.

“I think in a couple cases, we got really lucky. Deandre Ayton is from the Caribbean, so he grew up around Usain Bolt and track-and-field and fútbol, so he knows Puma as a performance brand,” Petrick explained. “For him, it wasn’t a stretch. Marvin’s dad was very influential in his process and he’s a student of the game, so he obviously knows Puma from back in the day. Also, whether they know Clyde or not, they certainly know the name and understand who he is, so we were able to talk about Clyde and his influence on who we are as a brand to this day. That was something that resonated in a lot of cases. When it comes to the guys we ended up with, a lot of it was about personality. Did we have good chemistry? Did our approach match their mindset, and did their mindset match our approach?”

Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Deandre Ayton, Adam Petrick (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Puma)

While exact terms weren’t disclosed, it’s safe to say that Puma made large offers to secure top draft prospects like Ayton and Bagley as well as a four-time All-Star like Cousins.

Ayton signed the largest shoe deal of any player in the 2018 NBA Draft class, according to league sources, and he made a four-year commitment to Puma. Bagley also inked a lucrative deal and he’s on a five-year contract. According to ESPN’s Nick De Paula, Puma also made a serious run at Trae Young, but he ultimately signed with adidas.

League sources say that Puma offered Cousins significantly more than he was earning on previous Nike deal, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Warriors center signed a four-year deal with Puma, which Nike had the option to match but declined to do so.

In the past, Puma has shown that they’re willing to pay big bucks to secure notable athletes. In 2013, Reuters reported that Bolt agreed to a long-term deal with Puma that would pay him $10 million a year for as long as he continued competing in track-and-field events. After retiring, he’d continue to earn $4 million per year as a Puma ambassador.

“We’ve been fairly selective and tried to bring in people who make sense for the Puma family,” Petrick said. “We’re very happy with the players we’ve been able to land. We looked for a combination of attitude, personality, chemistry and being the right match from a philosophical standpoint.”

Not only is Puma happy with the players they’ve signed, every player who spoke to HoopsHype raved about their experience with the company thus far.

“I like a lot of the things that they’ve been doing,” Rozier said. “I like the different collabs that they’ve done. I like the different colorways and stuff like that. I also like that you can wear them on and off the court. They look good on or off the court, and that was big for me. I can wear them wherever.”

“I’ve always loved Puma,” Rose said. “It takes me back to when I was young, back to when Puma was the brand. They were my favorite brand, and that’s not me being phony. As somebody who wears a size 15, I had a couple spots where I could always get my Pumas, but my spots started to dry up. Before you know it, I was like, ‘I need to find a way to get some more suede Pumas!’ Then, I joined Roc Nation Sports, which has a partnership with Puma. The first thing I said was, ‘Please put me in contact with Puma to see if a partnership is something we can make happen.’ I told them, ‘It’s not about the money, I’ll wear them for free!’ I made it clear that I’m a fan of what they do and as long as they have my size, I’m good! Obviously, I didn’t have to go to that extreme, but the partnership wasn’t forced. There are people who get offered endorsements and, depending on how much they’ll get paid, they’ll wear stuff even if they don’t love it. I actually love Puma. It’s a natural fit. I’m just excited I get pairs in my size again.”

Green praised Puma for being “very hands-on,” while also giving players the freedom to get creative. For example, when it comes to PEs (Player Exclusives), the athletes have a lot of control over their shoe’s design. The company’s design team will ask the player what they’re passionate about and then find a way to incorporate their interests into their PE. When it comes to the design process, players are as involved as they want to be.

“It was the creativity [that attracted me to Puma],” Rozier added. “I liked all of the creative ideas that they had. I feel like I’m a very creative person myself.”

While Puma has an impressive list of clients for a company that just re-entered the basketball space 10 months ago, they are always looking to bring in new talent as well.

“As Jay-Z has said to us, ‘Greatness attracts greatness.’ So the more great players we bring in, the more other great players will want to be part of our team,” Petrick said. “That’s the attitude and mindset we’re trying to have.”

***

Speaking of Jay-Z, bringing him on board was huge for Puma.

For one, it created a relationship between Puma Basketball and Roc Nation Sports, which is Hov’s agency. Rudy Gay, Danny Green, Zhaire Smith, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jalen Rose and God Shammgod are all represented by Roc Nation Sports and are now part of Puma Basketball as well.

“We’ve been working with Roc Nation for many, many years and had pondered what we could potentially do with Jay-Z,” Petrick said. “Once he agreed that [focusing on] basketball made sense, it was full steam ahead. That’s when we decided to do this and make him a part of it [as Creative Director of Puma Basketball]. That’s really when things got rolling.”

While Puma is a known brand, there’s no question that having Jay-Z involved opened many doors in the early stages of their comeback to this space.

“Even when this idea was fresh and we hadn’t even announced what we were doing but we were trying to recruit players, we didn’t have a hard time getting a meeting. Again, I think that’s a testament to the power of Jay and his influence,” Petrick said. “And because he’s shaping what we’re doing, people want to hear about it.”

Jay-Z also came up with the idea of having a Puma Jet, which is a perk that should help Puma’s pitch to sneaker free agents. Other brands have private jets, but only elite players and higher-ups have access to it. Any member of the Puma Basketball family has access to the private jet.

For example, Cousins used the jet to fly from Milwaukee (after a road game) to his hometown of Mobile, AL, for a charity event last December.

“Anyone – from players to ambassadors – can use the jet,” a source confirmed. “That jet has been in constant movement and is flying year-round.”

Hov also helped designed the Puma Jet, from “the paint job to the interior,” wrote ESPN’s De Paula, who has been on the jet. “[It] features white leather seats and couches, an illuminated display case for the brand’s latest sneakers and an elongated bed toward the back in a private room. Touch-screen controls can blast music throughout the plane’s upgraded sound system. Wine and champagne glasses are engraved with the Puma logo.”

While there’s no denying that Jay-Z’s involvement makes Puma cooler, he brings much more to the table. More than anything, Puma wanted someone who’s an expert in the business of basketball and someone who lends credibility to what they’re doing in this space. Jay-Z was a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets and then founded Roc Nation Sports. After 20 years away from the game, Puma wanted a knowledgeable Creative Director.

“We knew we weren’t going to walk into the basketball space and be the best right away because we don’t know the space extremely well. We knew we needed an expert,” Petrick admitted. “And who better to bring on than a culture-driving expert? Jay is someone who not only knows the space of basketball, he’s also an expert at building brands and promoting personalities and athletes. What better partner could we have to help shape our direction?

“At the same time, he also legitimizes us a bit. If you hear, ‘Puma is trying to get back into basketball,’ it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re just another brand trying to do something that’s difficult to do in the first place, so good luck!’ But when we add, ‘Oh, by the way, Jay-Z is our Creative Director and our partner,’ then it’s like, ‘Oh, you may have an interesting take on things; when can we meet?’ That certainly helps from a legitimacy standpoint. It really did help a lot.”

According to Petrick and several players, Jay-Z has been very involved in the company’s operations. They insist this isn’t some fake title with zero responsibilities.

“He’s influenced a lot – from small decisions to big decisions. Whether it’s thinking about our creative approach to finalizing product to thinking about roll-out plans, he’s very involved,” Petrick said. “It’s been great to have his thoughts and contributions.”

***

Initially, Puma determined that they wanted to return to the performance space, but they were unsure which sport to focus on.

“For us, the return to basketball signaled a rebirth in performance categories in the US market,” Petrick explained. “We really had been out of the performance categories for about 15 years – aside from dabbling in baseball and golf a little bit. This was very much about rejoining the performance marketplace in the US and cementing our place as one of the best performance brands on the market.

“From beginning to end, the process probably took a year – from inception of the idea, to landing on the [sport] we wanted to be in, to bringing things to life at the NBA draft. Along that way, there were a lot of conversations about how we would do it and what the right approach would be.”

Eventually, they decided that focusing on the culture around sports would be the best way to separate themselves from their competitors. After realizing this, honing in on basketball made even more sense.

“We felt like basketball was the right performance category because of the culture around the sport,” Petrick said. “We have a culture-first approach. We’re trying to do the best we can to push the culture forward and we want to change the game a bit, whether it’s with our partnerships or players.”

One example of Puma trying to positively impact the culture and make a difference is the Clyde Court REFORM shoe that they released in collaboration with Meek Mill, who has worked with Puma since 2012.

The Clyde Court REFORM was inspired by Meek’s push to reform the criminal justice system. Puma announced that 100% of the net proceeds from these shoes would go to the Reform Alliance, an organization whose mission is to “dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole.”

Many of the players in the Puma Basketball family showed their support by wearing the shoe and promoting the cause on social media.

“It’s something that’s really important to us,” Petrick said. “Personally, I think this is something we have a moral obligation to do as a brand. If we’re going to compete in this space and take part in a culture, then we have to not only be there during the great times, we also have to be there during the tough stuff. REFORM Alliance is trying to create change and we want to be a part of that.”

Puma tries to gauge their consumer’s interests and in their youngest consumer segment, they saw “a 300% rise in activism” in recent years.

“We’ve seen tremendous participation in rallies, whether it’s about gun-control issues or criminal-justice reform or police brutality or other issues that are important to our core customers,” Petrick expxplained.

Meek was part of the Puma family for years, so they felt it was only right to support his cause.

“Justice reform is something that’s extremely important to him,” Petrick said. “Obviously, anytime you have an ambassador who is that passionate about a cause, you have to support him.”

Several players mentioned that they love being partnered with a company that’s willing to get behind certain causes and use their platform to create change.

“It’s amazing to be part of a brand that has an activist side,” Shammgod told HoopsHype. “That’s a big reason why I wanted to partner with them. This summer, I’m hosting a tournament that’s all about preventing gun violence. I have another tournament called ‘God Loves Harlem’ to uplift my community. It’s all about giving back. Helping people and communities, that’s what Puma is about.”

“They’ve always stayed true to their roots and what was happening in the inner cities,” Rose told HoopsHype. “When you talk about Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics when they took their stand, they were wearing Pumas. This is a brand that always embraced, represented and supported those roots.”

***

It’s now been nearly one year since Puma re-entered the basketball space. What does the brand have in store for the future?

When asked if we should expect to see Puma sign another group of top draft prospects, Petrick seems to suggest that’s not going to happen.

“It’s hard to surprise people with the same technique twice,” Petrick said. “You can’t go back to the well too frequently and try to produce that same ‘whoa’ moment.”

Instead, it seems Puma will focus more on established players. As sneaker free agents become available, expect Puma to enter the bidding war for their services. Puma may still ink one or two draft prospects if the fit is right, but it seems unlikely that they’ll try to dominate the lottery again. Petrick did say that new partnerships and new sneakers are coming soon.

“What we do want is to bring new partnerships to the mix and bring new cultural elements to the mix. I think that’s where we’ll create those new ‘whoa’ moments, whether it’s by great signings, great partnerships or great content,” he said. “We’re going to continue to try to impress people and hopefully punch a little bit above our weight. We want to do interesting things that will be talked about. That’s our marketing strategy to a T. We’re going to bring out new sneakers in the near future. We have some things coming that I can’t necessarily share details about, but we’ll continue to add to our portfolio. I’m excited to see how our audience responds.”

Jalen Rose, Molly Qerim, Rudy Gay, God Shammgod at Puma Basketball launch party (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Puma)

One new release that may be coming soon is a God Shammgod shoe, according to God himself. While no official announcement has been made, Shammgod revealed the news to HoopsHype.

“I’ll have my own shoe coming out with Puma – the Shammgod shoe – so I’m just very excited,” Shammgod said. “I think the people who watched me when they were growing up are going to be very excited and happy with the product.”

In the ’80s, Puma was the official sponsor of several NCAA teams including UCLA, Villanova, Wake Forest, Boston College, DePaul and Cleveland State.

However, don’t expect to see any Puma-sponsored programs anytime soon. At the moment, Petrick confirms that they aren’t interested in entering the college-basketball space: “We want to perfect our approach in the NBA and maybe some other leagues abroad. For now, we’re just focused on professional basketball.”

Going forward, what does Puma Basketball need to do in order to challenge the sneaker juggernauts like Nike and adidas?

“They just need to stay consistent,” Rose said. “Like Biggie said, ‘Stay low and keep firing.’ To me, that’s what Puma has done. That’s why this resurgence is something that’s been really remarkable. And they’re going to continue to have staying power.”

“They’ll eventually get to that level by doing the right things and continuing to take care of the people,” Shammgod said. “It’s the people who drive the brands. At the rate we’re going, people are going to see the things that we’re doing and see that it’s bigger than selling sneakers.”

Everyone involved acknowledged that it’ll take time to challenge top brands, but they also expressed excited about Puma Basketball’s strong start and potential.

During All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, Puma was extremely visible. They had two huge parties – one on Saturday night and one on Sunday night. The second party was one of the most exclusive events of the weekend and featured performances by five rappers: the late Nipsey Hussle, Yo Gotti, Rapsody, G-Herbo and YBN Cordae.

When asked if Puma can get on the same level as Nike and adidas in the basketball space, Danny Green didn’t hesitate.

“For sure! I mean, back in the day, they were already there! They’ll definitely get back there,” he said. “They’re going to keep getting bigger guys.”

Like Green, Rozier believes that Puma will be on the top tier at some point in the future. Regardless of what happens, he made it clear that he plans on being with the company for the long haul.

“I don’t really see me with nobody else,” Rozier said. “I’m really looking forward to building with them, and I think they’ll just continue to get better.”

One thing that several players pointed out is that over the last year, they’ve seen more people sporting Puma gear than ever before.

“Puma is everywhere now,” Green said. “I was just talking with my friends about this! Maybe I’m just noticing it more now, but I do think a lot more people are wearing it. I think it’s probably a little bit of both. But I see Puma stuff everywhere.

“They’re the up-and-comers, and they’re doing really well. Puma is making a splash right now. You can tell the other companies are feeling a little threatened by them.”

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