Williamson says there were a lot of Zoom calls in the p…

More on Zion Williamson Sneaker Deal

Jordan Brand has unveiled Pelicans superstar Zion Williamson’s first signature sneaker and apparel line. The Zion 1 marks a new era for Jordan as Williamson represents the brand’s first Gen Z signature athlete on a talented roster that includes Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Caris LeVert. “Words can’t really explain it. As a kid you just say it to put in the atmosphere like, Hey, I want my own signature shoe, but as you get older you see it is tough to get your own signature shoe,” says Williamson. “Things have to really go your way, and I just want to thank Jordan Brand for the opportunity because I don’t think it has hit me yet.”
Jordan Brand designers spoke highly about working with Williamson on his first signature shoe. “We are working with one of the most humbled athletes I think we have seen with the brand. His humility and down-to-earth manner were just refreshing to see and how he approached this entire process,” says Jarrett Mann, product director of Jordan Brand Footwear. “It was an 18-month process working with a 19-year-old signature athlete and the first Gen Z signature athlete. We wanted this to be the beginning of a shoe that bridges the gap from this generation but also have that Jordan DNA.”
For many years, sneaker companies primarily went after guards. In recent years, unicorns like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant have emerged, so now brands target “perimeter players.” However, with Joel Embiid getting his first signature shoe later this year and Zion Williamson just signing the richest rookie deal since LeBron James, could this be the year that big men prove that they can sell shoes and force companies to update their approach? “Joel Embiid’s signature sneaker is going to be a really interesting case study because there’s no current center that has a signature shoe, so we’ll see how that does,” DePaula added. “What Joel brings is his ability to go viral on social media whenever he wants. I think there’s some validity to the phrase, ‘Big men can’t sell shoes.’ It is fairly true. We’ll see if Joel can break the mold because, historically, it’s been challenging for them.”
I asked DJ Clark Kent, an unimpeachable authority on the sneaker game, why he thought Jordan Brand has had such little success with its signature NBA guys and his response got at something elemental to the brand, “It’s not that they cant come up with something (good). I think the company is attached to Jordan and that it (Jordan Brand) doesn’t resonate as much when you splinter it off. Sneakers 1 through 14 were attached to Mike.” Clark continued, “Instead of a Westbrook shoe being attached to Russell Westbrook, his shoe is being attached to Mike.” Clark even offered some advice on how to move Jordan kicks that are branded by its superstar endorsees, “You wanna sell some shoes that are attached to those guys? Make a bunch of retros that are dedicated to them.” Yikes.
So it’s easy to understand why Zion would want to attach himself to Jordan Brand and it’s not just because they paid him very handsomely. Bun B, one half of the immortal UGK (RIP Pimp C!) and a Jordan Brand endorser himself, put it to me quite plainly, “People want to associate themselves with greatness. Which is why a lot of people tend to gravitate towards Jordan Brand’s product and being within proximity of Mike himself.” Mike is still a God-like figure in the eyes of so many hoopers. Jordan Brand has consistently bricked its attempts at launching culturally relevant signature shoe lines for over a decade now, but in Zion Williamson, it has its easiest layup to date. Even in this era of saturated marketing, where products are pitched at consumers on everything from their phones to their refrigerators, this should resonate differently. JB has never had a more ready-made star, never had a guy so perfect to launch Jordan Brand into its next era.
WHEN ZION WILLIAMSON arrived at the sold-out Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for his prime-time debut at the NBA summer league in early July, his choice of footwear had the NBA buzzing. Could Puma actually pull this off? A year after Puma landed 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton for the company's reentry into the basketball sneaker market, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft walked into the arena for his first NBA game wearing a white and red blast pair of the Puma RS-X Reinvention.
And while he hit the court that night wearing a pair of Nike Kyrie 4s from his Duke days, he spent the rest of summer league alternating between sneakers from Puma and Jordan Brand as he sat and watched his New Orleans Pelicans teammates from the sidelines. Those two companies had emerged as the front-runners in the Zion sweepstakes, a bidding war that saw some competitors offer deals that could've paid the young superstar nearly $20 million per year. In the end, Michael Jordan got his man.
SONNY VACCARO HAD a plan. The legendary sports marketing pioneer, who famously pushed Nike to sign Jordan 35 years ago, was serving as an adviser to Williamson and Lee Anderson, Williamson's stepfather. From the beginning of the process, Vaccaro tried to create a sense of urgency around the May 14 draft lottery. "My conversation with the family was that I see dead spots [marketwise] in this draft," he said. "My speech was that, 'We're going to do this early. It's going to be done before you go there.'"
But the company knew that a strong social media presence and flashy on-court sneakers wouldn't be enough to land Williamson. So when they met with the future No. 1 pick earlier this spring, they offered him an impressive financial commitment: a deal that soared as high as $15 million per year, plus the potential to add an additional $3 million a year in bonuses, according to industry sources. The initial meeting went well, and in ongoing talks throughout the following months, Puma appeared to have presented Williamson with the kind of comprehensive package -- both financial and intangible -- that he wasn't going to get with another brand.
When Williamson walked into summer league wearing one of Puma's casual sneakers, company executives were beaming. Heading into Las Vegas Summer League action, Puma execs believed they'd get a final answer from Williamson on their pitch by the end of the weekend. Seeing him start the weekend in a Puma shoe made them believe they had a great shot of landing him.
The competition to sign Williamson -- the national player and freshman of the year at Duke -- was intense. Before Williamson committed to Jordan Brand, several shoe competitors made offers on total deals that extended well into the nine-figure range, sources tell ESPN. Williamson had other offers in excess of $10 million annually, according to reporting from ESPN shoe analyst Nick DePaula.
Darren Rovell: Sources say Zion Williamson had offers bigger than the Jordan deal. Left money on the table for his dream of wearing the logo of his favorite player.
The Vertical: Zion's deal with Jordan Brand is reportedly 7-years/$75M, per @Adam Zagoria. LeBron's first deal with Nike was reportedly worth $90M and included a $10M signing bonus. pic.twitter.com/IT6rV74quU
Nick DePaula: Zion Williamson: “I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Jordan Brand family. Since I was a kid, I dreamed of making it to the league & having the type of impact on the game Michael Jordan had & continues to have today. He was one of those special athletes I looked up to."
Zion Williamson has still NOT signed a shoe deal -- despite being the most sought after NBA draft pick since LeBron James -- and our sources say it's all because of Puma. Nike was believed to be the front-runner to sign Zion for months ... with legendary former Nike exec Sonny Vaccaro telling us he thinks Zion's deal could hit the 9-figure mark. And, with Zion rocking Nikes in college, in pre-draft workouts and in some NBA Summer league games ... it seemed like it was just a matter of time before Zion signed with the Swoosh.
We're told Nike is aware of the competition and is making a hard push to get a deal done with Williamson first. As one source puts it, "He's the #1 priority." Remember, Zion did have one bad experience with Nike in college ... when his Nike PG 2.5s blew out during the opening seconds of the Duke vs. North Carolina game.
According to one NBA source, Williamson has yet to select an agent, a decision that seems inevitable before he signs a lucrative shoe deal. For now, Williamson is surrounded by his mother and stepfather, who have deftly guided him through every step of his journey. Sharonda Sampson and Lee Anderson have quietly helped create the phenomenon, even electing not to do interviews during Williamson’s year at Duke. Most important, Wiggins says, they’ll still be there to help Williamson select an agent. “I’ve got great parents, great siblings, a great circle that care for me and would do anything for me, protect me,” Wiggins says. “That’s the main thing, having a good circle around you.”
Duke says it is "looking into" lawyer Michael Avenatti's claims that Nike paid Zion Williamson's mother for "bogus consulting services" to an entity called Sharonda Sampson Consulting. A legal source familiar with South Carolina told me there is no registered business entity in the state called Sharonda Sampson Consulting or anything similar.
“We are aware of the allegation and, as we would with any compliance matter, are looking into it. Duke is fully committed to compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations,” Duke AD Mike White wrote in a statement to Duke's student newspaper, The Chronicle. “Every student athlete at Duke is reviewed to ensure their eligibility. With regard to men’s basketball: all recruits and their families are thoroughly vetted by Duke in collaboration with the NCAA through the Eligibility Center’s amateurism certification process.” Avenatti, who has been charged with attempting to extort Nike for $22.5 million, took to Twitter Friday night with claims Nike made payments to Sampson during Williamson's recruitment. The 6-foot-7 285-pound Williamson shocked the basketball world in January 2018 when he chose Duke over home-state Clemson as well as South Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas.
Under Armour is taking a cautious approach to the Zion Williamson sneaker sweepstakes. CEO Kevin Plank was asked how he plans to approach the Williamson bidding war during an interview with CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Friday, and noted his company will have to be "smart" with how it manages its money.
"He's probably one of the best prospects to come out in a very, very long time and he's going to be just a real heartbreaker for a lot of people in the NBA with what he does. But, you know, that remains to be seen," Plank said. “We've got a terrific stable, we love who we have, but we've said all along is that we're big enough in size and scale these days that we can do just about anything, we just can't do everything.”
Many in the sneaker industry believe Williamson's deal will make him one of the three highest-paid rookie sneaker endorses ever, rivaling LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
It’s too early to know what Williamson’s sneaker contract will be worth, but he comes with a built-in audience that includes 2.3 million Instagram followers and 227,000 Twitter followers. Various industry experts said his deal could be worth $50-$100 million. "That’s the number it should be, I don’t know,” said grassroots sneaker guru Sonny Vaccaro, who signed both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to sneaker deals, and was involved in LeBron James’ negotiations as well.
Like James, whose deal was done before the draft lottery that would eventually land him in Cleveland, Williamson is expected by industry insiders to have a deal inked before this year's May 14 draft lottery, as the major sneaker companies see Williamson as a potential marketing superstar regardless of which market he lands in. Back in 2003, James met with Reebok and turned down a $10 million check from the CEO to sign a potential $100 million deal with the brand on the spot. James would instead sign with Nike a week later for a fully guaranteed $87 million over seven years, and now has a lifetime deal with the company.
In fact, many in the sneaker industry expect that Williamson's eventual deal will make him one of the three highest-paid rookie sneaker endorsers ever, joining the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. "In my lifetime, I think it's going to be the biggest bidding war ever done," said Sonny Vaccaro, the famed former marketing executive with Nike, Adidas and Reebok. "I would put them all on go."
According to sources, executives have already begun to have company balance discussions around targeting Williamson to be a Jordan athlete instead, given Nike's current crowded stable. There have been conflicting viewpoints on whether or not that would be the right decision. "There could be some hurt feelings," Vaccaro said. "Other than those five [signature athletes] at Nike, another 20 of them are pretty goddamn great players that could be going to the Hall of Fame and don't have [a shoe]. They've been on the totem pole, and now [Zion] is going to get a zillion-dollar contract and go above everyone else."
As for the reinforced shoes, the Kyrie 4 model, Williamson was effusive after the game. "The shoes were incredible," he told reporters. "I want to thank Nike for making these." That's music to Nike's ears. The biggest question following Williamson's injury was whether it would hurt Nike's chances to sign him to an endorsement deal once he decides to go pro. If Thursday's results were any indication, their relationship may be healthier than some rival shoes companies would like.
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