NBA Rumor: Sneaker Deals

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Apparently, Shaq’s selfless demeanor dates back to early in his career. Recently, the Hall of Famer opened up about the exact moment he decided to turn his back on a multi-million dollar deal with Reebok in order to start his own shoe brand. It wasn’t about making more money for O’Neal, though, as he revealed his true motivation behind the Shaq brand: “I had a Reebok deal, 40 (million) for five (years),” Shaq said in a recent episode of the Full Send Podcast. “And I’m leaving the arena one day and this lady she’s ripping me like, ‘You mutherf—ers charging these babies all this money for the shoes!’”

Shaq then relayed how he literally tried to hand over the $2,000 he had in his pocket to the irate lady as an attempt to appease her. She wasn’t having it, though, and the lady slapped O’Neal’s hand away as she carried on with her tirade against Reebok’s overpriced shoes. “I though about it. I was like, ‘You know what, she’s right.’ So that day, I cut ties with Reebok,” Shaq said. “… I told them I said, ‘Keep the money. This ain’t right. Don’t want to make it no fight. I’ll still wear the shoes and I’ll wear it during the season, but I’ll be looking to do my own thing.’”


The 2021 NBA Draft will take place tomorrow evening in Brooklyn, and Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham is widely projected to be the top overall selection. The soon-to-be Detroit Piston recently agreed to a footwear and apparel deal with Nike, a pact that is reportedly the most lucrative shoe deal in this draft class. To be fair, however, that is not a particularly high bar to clear. Jalen Green, who played for the G League Ignite last season, is the only other presumptive lottery pick to have announced a deal that includes a cash component to date. Excel Sports Management founder Jeff Schwartz said the dearth of incoming rookies with well-paid shoe contracts is indicative of a market where endorsement money is hard to come by.

Throughout conversations with several player agents, most brands have relayed that they can begin discussing new deals after Jan. 1, when a new quarterly fiscal budget begins. But some brands have even prepared players and agents to wait as far as July 1 before new contracts can be officially offered, signed and paid. The financial impact of the coronavirus continuing on into the year, however, has only added to the downward trend that the hoops sneaker market has faced recently. Each of the last five years, basketball footwear sales have been dwindling, as the buying public has opted instead to purchase more lifestyle and retro sneakers.

Longtime NBA writer Ric Bucher reported on his podcast that around 150 players have a paid Nike shoe deal of some level. Of that group, he said, nearly 70 are expiring right now and won’t be renewed. For veterans on existing expiring deals, which typically expire on Oct. 1, they’ve been prepared to either not receive a renewal offer at all come January, or to expect a reduced offer below the value of their prior deal. Several around the industry expect for as many as 100-175 players to play this season without a shoe deal. Already, some are shuffling between Nike, Adidas, Puma and Under Armour pairs game by game. Chinese brand Anta plans to send pairs of its new Klay Thompson shoe to a variety of sneaker free agents around the league as well.

On Tuesday, Adidas announced a long-term partnership with Lorenzo, the Fear Of God company founder and designer, fresh off a successful series of Nike collaborations. In the new unique structure, Lorenzo “will drive the creative and business strategy for Adidas Basketball globally,” according to the brand. Social media influencers, a murky market of its own, continue to also play a role in the industry. Adidas signed gaming star Ninja a year ago to a long-term sneaker deal, marking yet another new frontier for endorsements. As the media climate continually shifts away from viewers watching a two-hour basketball game in its entirety to consuming bits and pieces of games in quick highlights across social media, the value of players toward the end of rosters can perhaps be even more scrutinized by sneaker brands.

LeBron James wanted to recruit Luka Doncic for sneaker deal

The rising NBA phenom impressed LeBron James so much that not only did James like Luka Doncic’s emerging talent — he envisioned Doncic becoming a business partner. “I wanted to begin ‘Team LeBron’ and have Luka as my first signing with Nike,” James said recently on his “Road Tripping podcast. “I don’t believe that my guys at Nike was ready for that. Obviously they were not, because he ended up going to [Michael] Jordan. I don’t know if Luka knows this.”

When Adidas signed Young, the company made it clear to him that there was no guarantee he would get his own shoe one day. But through two seasons in the NBA, Adidas had seen enough to make Young one of its signature basketball athletes, joining James Harden, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Rose. “Both sides agreed that he outplayed and outperformed his rookie deal with Adidas, as far as making the All-Star team and being one of the top guys in points and assists,” Ray Young said. “Every incentive that was in his deal, he hit. It was just a matter of what he ended up getting from Adidas. We were fine either way, but they called Omar and wanted to get it done.”

The agreement to have his own shoes was finalized two months ago, Ray Young said, as they waited to announce the deal when the season returned. Because Atlanta was not one of the 22 teams invited to the bubble to continue its season, Young had an extended offseason, which allowed him to individually work on his game and focus on his brand deals — his contract with Adidas being the biggest one. Wilkes expressed to Adidas Young’s camp didn’t want to wait until this offseason to negotiate a new deal because Young has enjoyed his partnership with the company and didn’t want to go into the offseason having to take pitches from Nike, Under Armour, Puma and overseas companies, who would all be vying for his services if he ended up becoming a shoe free agent.

“Their hope is for Trae to carry on that name with Adidas with their basketball shoes like Tracy McGrady who did a great job selling a lot of shoes,” Ray Young said. “Derrick Rose still sells a ton of shoes. Damian Lillard and James Harden are two of the top guys in the league. Their thing was getting guys who are going to continue pushing their name forward and try to compete with the other brands and be No. 1. They think he’s one of the young and up-and-coming guys who can do that. There aren’t many signature shoes out there. We are blessed they chose Trae to be one of those few.

“I’m super excited,” Young told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “This is a dream come true for me. I dreamed as a kid, just playing on those little goals in your room, putting on [signature] shoes and dreaming of being that player.” Young says he’s been “very involved” in the process of making the shoe. “I want this shoe to represent me, I want this shoe to represent who I am. This shoe is gonna do that. Every kid that puts this shoe on, every person who plays in this shoe, is going to feel the way that I feel.”

LBJ wanted to start his own Nike brand with Luka Doncic

During an appearance on Uninterrupted’s Road Trippin Podcast, James revealed that he wanted to sign Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić to the would-be LeBron Brand, apparently running the idea by Nike during Dončić’s sneaker free agency last season. “I don’t even know if Luka knows this, but he will know it now,” said James. “I wanted Luka to be the first signee of Team LeBron when he was going through his situation.”

Stephen Curry to have his own brand?

I’ve been told by a “sneakerhead” source in China that Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry will soon have his own brand under the umbrella of Under Armour, just like how Michael Jordan has his Jordan Brand at Nike. His new “Curry8 Flow” is supposed to drop sometime in the Fall. I have heard both August and September as possible release time frames, so I don’t have strong intel on that.

On May 18, the Oregon federal court emphasized its prior decision that upheld the validity and enforceability of the Nike contract that Leonard previously signed. It highlighted the portion of the contract where Leonard acknowledged that Nike exclusively owns all right, title and interest in intellectual property created by Nike or Leonard in connection with the contract. Leonard] acknowledges that NIKE exclusively owns all rights, title and interest in and to the NIKE Marks and that NIKE shall exclusively own all rights, title and interest in and to any logos, trademarks, service marks, characters, personas, copyrights, shoe or other product designs, patents, trade secrets or other forms of intellectual property created by NIKE . . . or [Leonard] in connection with this Contract[

Ultimately, it appears that Leonard’s case against Nike will end up backfiring against the NBA superstar. He filed his action in the wrong jurisdiction, attempting to play offense, and now finds himself in a very weak defensive position, with Nike already prevailing in certain respects. Unless Leonard is able to provide the court with some strong evidence to the contrary, it seems that Leonard may also end up being on the hook for damages related to copyright infringement and multiple breaches of contract.

UNINTERRUPTED: “MJ stepped up and said … I’ll take Melo, y’all got LeBron.” Hear the story of how MJ chose @carmeloanthony to be the first @Jumpman23 signature athlete on a new #WRTS After Party.

Meanwhile, O.J. Simpson, who was a spokesman for Spot-Bilt, a casual shoe brand, vouched for Jordan and insisted the brand match Nike’s offer to lure him into signing with the company. “The Last Dance” executive director Jason Hehir told the story to “Jalen & Jacoby,” explaining how Michael Jordan nearly signed with an otherwise long-forgotten company: “Spot-Bilt, you remember them?” asked Hehir in a recent interview. “They matched [Nike’s] offer. Michael Jordan came this close to being with Spot-Bilt because the spokesman at the time was another athlete who had broken, transcended some racial bounds, it’s a guy by the name of O.J. Simpson. “He said to the guys at Spot-Bilt: ‘The kid out of Carolina is the next me. Go get him.’ So they matched Nike’s offer, but they couldn’t match the marketing. They couldn’t promise [agent] David Falk that they could market Michael the way that Nike would. And that ultimately is what put that deal over the top, financially, for them.”

After Converse told Jordan that it had too many big-name players — including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — to make Jordan a front man for the company, the choice came down to Adidas or Nike. Adidas wasn’t willing to give Jordan his own shoe, but Nike was. There was just one problem: Jordan didn’t want to meet with the shoe company to discuss it. “I couldn’t even get him to get on the damn plane and go visit the campus,” Jordan’s agent, David Falk, said.

Jordan became a pitchman unlike any other before him, and to some degree, it turns out that was the plan all along. Agent David Falk explains in Episode 5 how he wanted to treat Jordan like a boxer or tennis player – an individual star – instead of how stars in team sports were typically marketed. But Nike, the company that landed Jordan, never would’ve gotten a meeting if it weren’t for MJ’s mom, who convinced him to take the meeting. “I go into that meeting not wanting to be there,” Jordan says in Episode 5. “Nike made this big pitch. And Falk was like, ‘You gotta be a fool if you’re not taking this deal. This is the best deal.’”

Sabrina Ionescu always has considered Steph Curry to be her “big brother.” So, is there about to be a rift in the family? In the days leading up to the 2020 WNBA Draft, Ionescu finds herself in a new reality. Expected to be the No. 1 overall pick by the New York Liberty, she potentially could sign a lucrative sneaker deal, with Under Armour, Nike and Puma all in the mix. As she mulls a decision, the influence of Curry, her NBA superstar mentor and the face of Under Armour, is obvious. “I think he texts me almost every day,” Ionescu revealed this week on NBC Sports Bay Area’s Runnin’ Plays Podcast. “He’s working hard.”

But as she decides on a deal, Ionescu says she hopes a signature sneaker is in the works. “I think before this all happened, I never thought about it because I didn’t think it was even a possibility because women don’t usually have signature shoes,” Ionescu said. “And then I think listening to a lot of these companies and the goals and visions that they had to have a signature shoe down the line, I was like, ‘Oh, actually that would be pretty cool.’

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.”

Interestingly, some companies include a small-market reduction as well. Just as brands give players a bonus for being in a large market (such as Los Angeles or New York), they’ll significantly dock their pay if they land in certain small markets. Players are essentially being fined for ending up in a small-market city, even if it’s not the player’s choice. “I’ve seen some brands include a 20-percent reduction for landing in certain small markets,” DePaula said. “I know for a fact that one brand had Sacramento and Orlando among others on that list of markets.” “Yes, that’s definitely a clause that exists in contracts,” one shoe-companyexecutive confirmed on the condition of anonymity. “There are bonuses or reductions based on the player’s market. If the player goes to a major market like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami, the brand is going to get more exposure. They’ll be playing in more nationally televised games and get more media coverage.”

Keep in mind, this is all up for negotiation, so an agent can push back against a small-market reduction if they don’t want it in the contract. “It’s a give-and-take,” one NBA agent said. “If you’re going to allow a reduction like that to be put in place, what are you getting in return that makes it worth it to include that? The main reduction incentives that you see in sneaker contracts (and all endorsement contracts) are related to injuries. If a guy isn’t playing, there are opportunities for brands to roll back their pay. There are also moral clauses, where the player’s contract could be affected if the player does something of moral turpitude.”

“You try to find what the market is and while it’s not definitive like it is when you’re negotiating an NBA contract, you hearrumors and dig for information to find out what other players were paid,” said a top NBA agent. “You also have to talk to every company. By having conversations with every company as opposed to just one or two, you get a valuation and understand what the market will bear for that particular client.” “Larger agencies have a clear-cut advantage when determining market values for players,” former NBA agent Matt Babcock said. “They will naturally have a better grip on the marketplace, as they engage in more negotiations with each shoe company due to representing more clients.”

The biggest difference between rookie deals and veteran deals is that the former is all about projecting a prospect’s upside and marketability (like NBA teams do in the draft) and the latter is about evaluating a proven commodity (like NBA teams do in free agency). And unless a top pick develops into a star, they will likely earn less money on their second sneaker contract. “I think the second deal is often more of a rude awakening for guys rather than a raise,” DePaula said. “Top prospects get paid a lot and then some of those deals look bad very quickly. There’s one rookie who was a top pick in recent years and he got $2 million per year, but months into his NBA career, the company was realizing, ‘This deal isn’t going to work out.’ That player will most likely get a merch deal when his deal is up. Rookie deals are kind of a crapshoot.”

New Balance will continue to expand in the sport of basketball by announcing a new multi-year partnership with the NBA. As part of the new agreement, the sportswear brand will be able to create authentic broadcast, digital and retail content featuring New Balance-sponsored athletes wearing their respective NBA uniforms and team logos. The partnership will officially start with New Balance’s upcoming “We Got Now” campaign that features the reigning NBA All-Star MVP, Kawhi Leonard inspired by his journey of becoming the best in the game. The campaign will air during the Denver Nuggets v.s. Los Angeles Clippers game on Feb. 28 at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

By 2018, concurrent with the R&D team, New Balance began pitching potential endorsees with the goal of bringing a shoe to market in October 2019. Remember, the typical turnaround is a year and a half. These early pitches didn’t have prototypes or samples. It was all theoretical, just hope and hunger waiting for a chance to come to life. During this time, the design team received word that Kawhi Leonard was on the radar. Usually a player of this caliber doesn’t ever hit the free agency market, but he had turned down a four-year, $22 million extension with Jordan Brand in March 2018 and the company announced that it would let him walk in October 2018.

“We went from the world not knowing about New Balance Basketball in October (2018) to ‘Can we get him in a New Balance shoe by the All-Star game in February (2019)?’ ” Grondin said. “I’ve been enjoying it. One of the reasons that I came is I wanted to build and start something of my own,” Leonard explained in late January, after being asked why he chose to sign a multiyear contract with New Balance in the neighborhood of $5 million annually. “Start with this new company in basketball and they’ve been great. And we’re going to keep building this relationship from here.”

“We’re not going to turn Kawhi into an Instagram comedian,” Cassidy said when asked about the brand’s conscious decision to heavily lean into Leonard’s eccentricities. New Balance followed that up with another billboard, this one reading “Board Man Gets Titles,” a reference to a story by The Athletic that went viral last season. Merchandise followed in the form of plain black t-shirts with “Fun Guy” in the most ho-hum box lettering imaginable.

Not even now that he’s a slam-dunk champion. Not even after signing a new endorsement deal over the weekend with Puma, which also inked a deal with Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn. The only things Jones Jr. is changing are people’s perceptions that dunking is all there is in his game. Jones Jr., the Heat’s high-flying forward who turned 23 on the night he soared over teammate Bam Adebayo and others on his way to his first dunk title, something he longed to win ever since coming up short in the competition in 2017, isn’t preoccupied with what the critics say.
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