How sneaker free agency works: The recruiting and pitch meetings

How sneaker free agency works: The recruiting and pitch meetings

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How sneaker free agency works: The recruiting and pitch meetings

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This is part three of a four-part series that gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at shoe deals and the sneaker-free-agency process, with insight from various NBA agents, sneaker executives and industry experts. You can read part one here and part two here.

When a player’s shoe deal expires and they become a sneaker free agent, what happens next?

Typically, a shoe deal is structured to expire on October 1. Most have language that allows the incumbent brand to offer an extension to the player in the spring. If he turns down the extension to weigh his options, he can start meeting with rival brands and hearing their pitches after August 1 (since that’s 90 days before the contract expires).                                                                                                         

Almost every sneaker contract has a match clause, which allows the incumbent brand to match an offer sheet that the player receives (like restricted free agency). Typically, the incumbent brand has 10 days to match. Let’s say a player wants to leave Nike to sign an offer sheet with adidas. Nike would have 10 days to match the offer sheet. If Nike matches, they keep the player; if Nike declines, the player would join adidas.

“The match clause is very much a relationship thing, and Stephen Curry is the most famous example of this,” ESPN’s Nick DePaula said. “He signed an offer sheet with Under Armour and the Nike guy called Steph and they had a heart-to-heart. The Nike guy said, ‘Hey, normally we would match this because we value you as a player, but do you really want to leave? Where is your head at?’ And Steph said that he really wanted to go to Under Armour to try to build his own thing. Nike basically said, ‘Alright, cool. We respect that, so we’ll let you go.’ They got a lot of heat for that (hindsight is 20/20), but if a player really wants out, they’ll sometimes let him go.”

Like NBA teams during free agency, sneaker companies recruit players and put together elaborate, personalized presentations in an effort to impress the individuals they’re pursuing.

Perhaps the most well-known sneaker-free-agency recruiting story is Nike botching their meeting with Curry and his family when the star point guard was considering a move to Under Armour. One Nike official mispronounced Curry’s name (saying “Steph-on” rather than Stephen) and they accidentally left Kevin Durant’s name on one of their PowerPoint slides, making it obvious that they had just re-purposed a previous presentation. “I stopped paying attention after that,” Dell Curry told ESPN’s TrueHoop

When it was Under Armour’s turn to meet with Curry, they gathered at his home in Charlotte. Knowing that Curry is a big family man, they included his family in their pitch quite a bit, per DePaula. For example, they mocked up special colorways of their next team shoe to honor his various relatives (such as a Mother’s-Day colorway that showed love to his mom, Sonya).

“When adidas is doing their rookie pitches, historically, they rent a crazy mansion in the Hollywood Hills and bring a player in for three hours,” DePaula said. “They’ll have a chef, a ping-pong table and video games to create a hang-out atmosphere where they’ll get to know the player (and vice versa). They’ll let the player bring his family and friends and agent. They really try to develop a relationship with the player. Also, adidas has gotten some of their artists (like Pharrell or Snoop Dogg) to record a personalized message for players and have them talk about how they’re excited for them to join the family.”

New Balance has a 30-to-40-foot digital billboard that’s in the lobby of their building and when they’re recruiting a player, they’ll play a special video message for them when they arrive. 

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

AND1 develops a logo for the player, shows them designs for PE colorways and discusses their custom marketing plan for the individual. They also stress that players can keep their own personal brand and AND1 will even help promote it. Fred VanVleet, who recently signed with AND1, has a brand called ‘Bet on Yourself’ and he sells clothes, hats, wristbands and other items online and in his own store in his hometown of Rockford, IL.

“A lot of guys are coming into the league with their own brand,” said AND1’s head of sports marketing Dexter Gordon. “The whole landscape is changing with these young guys. They’re businessmen now. You have to look at these players as partners like, ‘You’re going to help us build our brand and we’re going to help you build your personal brand too.’ Sometimes, that means doing a collab. Sometimes, that means letting a player wear some of their own stuff during AND1 photoshoots. We’re going to teach you about the business too. Fred came in with his own brand, ‘Bet on Yourself,’ and we love it! We would never tell him that he can’t do that.”

Every company has a different approach. These days, players have a ton of options when they hit sneaker free agency. Nike, adidas and Jordan Brand are still on top, but many competitors are now in the space including Under Armour, PUMA, New Balance, AND1, Converse, Li-Ning, Anta, Peak and Q4 among others. Agents are welcoming these brands with open arms, as it only helps them do their job.

“I think it makes it easier because you have more leverage based on the fact that you have more suitors for the player,” one top NBA agent said. “It gives you a better sense of what the market is before you talk to the bigger companies and it gives you more options so if you can’t get what you want from the bigger companies, there’s a range of other companies that can still give your client a great deal. That goes for the domestic companies (like PUMA, New Balance and AND1) and the Chinese companies (like Anta, Li-Ning and Peak).”

“Anytime you have more brands and more opportunities, it’s going to make things easier for the athlete and the agent because now you have more offers to look at,” NBA agent Roger Montgomery added.

Despite the increasingly crowded market, Nike and Jordan Brand know that many players have always dreamed of signing with them and they use this to their advantage. Typically, Nike and Jordan offer the least amount of money because of their unique position.

“Usually, Nike and Jordan Brand are the last to pitch because they want to let everybody else set the market first and then their offer will usually be the lowest since many people have an affinity for their brand,” DePaula said.

“Nike and Jordan Brand usually have an advantage because many players grew up with their product and love the brand,” one top NBA agent said. “In many cases, players are willing to take less money just because they want to be associated with Nike or Jordan as opposed to other companies. These companies often know your client’s preferences and that just gives them a leg up in negotiations.”

But if a player joins Jordan Brand, they get a ton of free gear sent to them every few months and they can wear their favorite shoes during games. Also, the Jordan Brand family goes on an annual summer trip that’s exclusively for their athletes and their loved ones. In recent years, they’ve been to Monaco, Mexico and the Bahamas to name a few. For some players, these things outweigh the additional cash.

Michael Jordan in Paris (Photo by Jordan Brand via Getty Images)

“If you grew up with a Michael Jordan poster on your wall and then you’re about to enter the NBA and you get an offer from Jordan Brand, I totally get it!” Gordon said. “That’s every kid’s dream, being able to get all of the Jordans they want. MJ is an iconic person and they feel like, ‘Wow, he wants me?!’”

On the other end of the spectrum, Chinese brands (such as Anta and Li-Ning) usually offer the most money. They understand that most players are unfamiliar with their brand and that the only way they can compete with companies like Nike and adidas is to write a relatively bigger check.

“The Chinese brands are typically coming in with the higher offers; that’s been the case for a while now,” DePaula said. “But, for the most part, a lot of the brands are usually in the same ballpark when it comes to their offers. I can’t think of too many times when one brand’s offer was leaps-and-bounds higher than another brand’s offer.”

“An agent needs to keep a pulse on the marketplace to see which companies are prepared to make aggressive plays in any given year,” former NBA agent Matt Babcock added.

One agent pointed out that while many players enter the league wanting to sign with Nike or Jordan because of their love of those shoes, their priorities tend to change once they’re a veteran. By the time they are on their second deal, they may just want to take the biggest offer. 

“A lot of these kids get to the NBA and they want to play with an official NBA basketball from Spalding, wear an authentic NBA jersey and play in Nike shoes,” the agent said. “For some kids, it’s what they’ve been looking forward to their whole life. However, by the time some of these players get to their second sneaker contract, they’re now more open to other brands and want to make as much money as they possibly can – even if they were a huge Nike fan. We saw that with D’Angelo Russell and Kyle Kuzma, who were complete Nike guys. They loved Nike, but they went in a different direction because they wanted to make more money. Russell signed with Li-Ning and Kuzma signed with PUMA.”

In some cases, the primary NBA agent negotiates their clients’ sneaker deals himself. For example, Aaron Goodwin is the primary agent at Goodwin Sports Management, but he’s known for negotiating excellent shoe deals; he did LeBron James’ rookie deal with Nike, Kevin Durant’s rookie deal with Nike and all of Damian Lillard’s deals with adidas. Other agencies have someone whose sole focus is sneaker-and-endorsement deals.

“It varies from agency to agency,” DePaula explained. “CAA has one person who specifically does shoe deals, Lloyd Frischer, and he’s done a great job. He did Joel Embiid’s deal with Under Armour, Dwyane Wade’s lifetime deal with Li-Ning, Donovan Mitchell’s extension with adidas, Paul George’s signature-deal extension with Nike, Zion Williamson’s deal with Jordan Brand and Kyle Kuzma’s deal with PUMA. That’s six deals with six different brands! They’re strong deals across the board too. Priority Sports has a guy who specifically does shoe and marketing deals too; he did Gordon Hayward’s deal with Anta. It just depends on the agency.”

Sneaker free agency doesn’t always go the way a player expects, which we’ll cover in part four of this series that focuses on the biggest misconceptions about shoe deals.

Be sure to check back later this week for part four of this series.

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