Puma made a huge splash last week when the brand officially announced its return to the basketball business. There were rumblings during the NBA draft process that the brand was interested in returning to the court and hoped to sign Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young. While Young eventually landed at Adidas, Puma continued full force and grabbed top draft picks Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.
On top of the prospect signings, the German sportswear company also announced that Jay-Z will be brought on as creative director of its basketball division. The brand has maintained that Jay-Z’s role will solely focus on creative input in footwear and art direction, insisting he will not be involved in recruiting or selecting players for sponsorship deals. Since he is the founder of the Roc Nation Sports agency, the buzz has been that his involvement with Puma could potentially complicate matters within his own clientele.
Would Jay-Z really try to persuade Nike athletes like Kevin Durant and Todd Gurley to switch to Puma? While Smith is a client, neither Bagley III, Ayton nor Porter Jr. are on Roc Nation’s roster. It will be interesting to see how their relationship with Jay-Z will develop over the next couple of years, however.
In an industry where performance basketball sneaker sales are dwindling, Puma's dip back into the hoops market came as a surprise. The brand hasn’t released a model since 1999, when Vince Carter was Puma’s biggest endorser. But the brand does have an iconic history within the sports business.
“Our history gives an amazing advantage over a lot of our competitors,” says Adam Petrick, global director of marketing and brand for Puma.
Before Michael Jordan signed with Nike, before Allen Iverson laced up a pair of Reeboks, Walt “Clyde” Frazier was basketball’s first signature sneaker athlete in 1973 with the PUMA Clyde. The brand honored Frazier last week with a lifetime contract as they entered back into the basketball market.
“Jay-Z said the first thing he wanted to focus on when he started working with us was to honor Clyde Frazier and Olympian Tommie Smith,” says Petrick.
Puma's campaign has quietly picked up steam in the past few years and added star power in their entertainment division. Rihanna was named Puma’s global ambassador for women’s training and serves as Puma women’s creative director, with her Fenty collection becoming one of the most popular items to release within the brand's past decade. Along with Rihanna, Puma also signed deals with Selena Gomez, Kylie Jenner, Big Sean, Meek Mill, The Weeknd and Nipsey Hussle.
The brand’s rise has mirrored that of Adidas, a brand connected to cultural stars like Kanye West and Pharell. The three-stripes has improved its brand with partnerships that focus more on culture and creativity than the basketball court.
Similarly, Puma has an opportunity beyond the court and can capitalize on a huge opportunity to connect with a young demographic. The company sees the basketball market as the next step in its attempt to connect with more people, diving into a sport that drives culture and shapes today’s trends.
While having an impressive roster is cool, the biggest factor in Puma's success will be the product. That effort starts in earnest when the Puma Clyde Court Disrupt releases on October 1st.
The design draws inspiration from the classic Puma Clyde and features an engineered knit upper, the brands’ iconic formstripe and a rubber translucent outsole. The bold reddish/orange and yellow colorway was a marketing strategy that was spearheaded by Jay-Z.
“Jay-Z said he wanted the sneakers to be disruptive. Have people talking,” says Ryan Cross, general manager of Puma basketball. “When the sneakers were done, Jay-Z came into the room and said, 'That’s the one,' and then he walked out the room (laughs). We wanted people to see it from the television and be bold and bright and in your face.”
NBA player and Roc Nation athlete Rudy Gay, who was present at the launch event in Brooklyn, signed an endorsement deal with the brand and had a huge say in the design process.
“Rudy has been working with us diligently behind the scenes," Cross says. "He has been helping us and being the guy that makes sure the shoe works. We wanted a sneaker that was made for the street and built for the court. That was the key. We wanted a shoe that you can wear right now.”
As far as the new prospects, the decisions of Ayton and Bagley III were both based on interest in doing something different and becoming the faces of a brand instead of joining a company like Nike.
The basketball business has changed quite a bit and prospects are more willing to bet on themselves. Last year we saw the Ball family strike out on its own, and their foray into football has inspired basketball‘s new generation of sneaker pitchmen. Just read what Bagley III toldBleacher Report:
“I remember when Lonzo and LaVar Ball first came out with Big Baller Brand and Lonzo's shoe, then LaMelo's shoe, everybody was bashing them for it and talking down on them for it. I kind of respected it, because it was different and it wasn't what everybody was doing. They were trying to do something good for Lonzo and the rest of the family. I just think being different is a big thing for me, and that's my motto. Be different. I had a vision, and I'm just trying to follow the vision and put as much as I can to it.”
Prospects are taking the power into their own hands and trying to be independent. Bagley III and Ayton both have maintained strong ties to brands like Nike on the AAU and high school basketball circuit for years. Any other year athletes would be expected tod sign with a brand that has been by their side since the grassroots level—but that wasn’t the case. When money becomes involved anything is possible, and Bagley reportedly signed the largest rookie contract with a sneaker brand since Kevin Durant.
Another attempt to gain attention of the court saw the brand announced a multi-year partnership with the The Basketball Tournament (TBT), becoming the leagues exclusive footwear and apparel partner. Puma will receive promotional rights to all TBT games and a huge presence during ESPN broadcasts. They are also offering an official endorsement deal to any player who competes in TBT and then signs with an NBA team the following season.
With the marketing plan in place, the next step for Puma is to actually sell product. The announcements were fun and produced buzz but trends die fast in today’s society. We have seen set the world on fire for a couple days before going silent. How will the brand continue to make waves over the next couple years? Will Ayton and Bagley be enough to persuade other future prospects? While Nike and Adidas will be at the forefront of basketball sales and trends, Puma is an iconic brand and it will always have a place in the sneaker business. Whether their basketball efforts actually make an impact still remains to be seen.