It is pretty safe to say that this has been one of the strangest summers in the basketball sneaker industry. While the reports of the decline in basketball shoe sales have been floating around for years, it hasn’t stopped non-traditional basketball brands from trying to enter the space to get a piece of the biggest players and prospects.
Last year we saw the invasion of Big Baller Brand and its outlandish business model but if you want to credit LaVar Ball for one thing, it’s the idea of independence for future prospects. You can relate this method to what we have seen with top prospects like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, who both bypassed traditional brands like Nike and Adidas to sign with Puma, a brand that hasn’t made a basketball sneaker since 1999. The pitch: Why wait in the stable behind guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant at Nike when you can be the face of an up-in-coming company?
There are also no major sneaker free agents on the market this upcoming season as compared to previous seasons. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo headlined the past few years before signing with Adidas and Nike, respectively. Kawhi leonard, Joel Embiid, and Gordon Hayward are the biggest names available, but their names do not move the needle in the sneaker space. Embiid has the highest ceiling out of the bunch due to his personality, but his history of injuries may be a concern for him to ever be the face of a shoe.
With the industry appearing stagnant in so many ways, which brands and players are actually gaining traction this summer? And who dropped the ball? The Crossover breaks down this offseason’s biggest winners and losers in the sneaker industry.
Winners: LeBron James and Nike
LeBron James signing with the Lakers was a major move for an L.A. basketball market that was in desperate need of a star. James will now have easy access to all of his business endeavors while he continues his mission to join MJ in the billionaire boys club.
While the Lakers are not in the best position to compete with the Warriors for a ring yet, James will certainly lead the NBA in just about every off-the-court metric, including magazine covers, jersey sales and sneakers.
LeBron was recently named the best shoe salesman once again and is coming off one of his best sneaker models yet with the LeBron 15. The sneaker received rave reviews for its performance aspects and the “LeBron Watch Program” was a hit this past season.
Nike, which has been by LeBron’s side since he first stepped foot in the NBA, has major plans for his upcoming sneaker. Designer Tinker Hatfield told TMZ that James's next shoe will be a “groundbreaking kind of product.”
Loser: Kawhi Leonard
For a man doesn’t have the biggest personality in the world, I find it a bit strange that Kawhi Leonard has been so picky when it comes to sneaker endorsements. According to ESPN’s Nick DePaula, Jordan Brand will let Kawhi walk once his sneaker deal expires. Kawhi turned down a four-year, $22 million extension to remain with the brand.
Penny Hardaway was famously quiet but Nike developed the Lil Penny alter ego to help and the marketing campaign took off. Kawhi is a different level of laid back and doesn’t really have the flash to be a signature sneaker star. It will be interesting to see how Kawhi reinvents himself in Toronto after the whole Spurs debacle.
Winner: Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade has been a sneaker journeyman, hopping from Converse to Jordan Brand to being the face of Chinese brand Li-Ning. Wade is beloved in China and recently signed a lifetime contract with Li-Ning, a company he has endorsed since 2012. Wade announced the deal when unveiled his latest shoe, the “Way of Wade 7”, at an event in Beijing last week.
Wade has also reportedly been offered a three-year, $25 million contract from the Zhejiang Golden Bulls. If he decides to call it quits in the NBA, there will be a lucrative opportunity waiting for him. While the world awaits D-Wade’s decision, you have to be happy for the man. He finally has found a shoe company to call home.
Loser: Under Armour
Under Armour took major steps in the right direction with Stephen Curry’s latest basketball silhouette, the Curry 5. But it doesn’t seem like the hype train for the brand is there at the moment. UA has had a very quiet summer and didn’t sign any major NBA draft prospects. Ayton and Porter Jr. had ties to Under Armour through AAU and grassroots camps but opted to sign with Puma. Under Armour does have rising sophomores Dennis Smith Jr. and Josh Jackson in their stable, however. UA did unveil their latest basketball silhouette—the Under Armour HOVR Havoc.
TBD: New Balance
While the news of Puma returning to the basketball sneaker market surprised everyone, the report that New Balance is entering the industry as well is even more puzzling. New Balance has never been a major figure in the basketball space and the company's last notable endorser in the NBA was former Spurs forward Matt Bonner, who didn’t even have a deal with New Balance.
New Balance is targeting Boston Celtics’ Gordon Hayward to be the face of the new line, according to ESPN's Nick DePaula. I can’t think of a better fit for a shoe brand and an athlete. But will people really buy New Balance basketball kicks?
Before signing with Nike, Hayward had already explored the non-traditional route, as he repped Chinese brand Peak during his second season. Hayward is coming off a devastating leg injury and probably deserves a fresh start with a brand. New Balance’s headquarters is located in Boston and they have partnered with the Celtics on their practice facility.
Winner: Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving has been one of the top players in the sneaker market because kids simply love him. Irving has the second-highest selling sneakers after LeBron James, according to Forbes. The Kyrie 4 is another standout in a signature line that has continued to sell well thanks to its performance aspects and fair price for all. The Uncle Drew movie also put a dope spin on things as Foot Locker and Irving released special themed Uncle Drew Kyrie IV’s for fans.
Even: Jordan Brand
It has been a relatively quiet summer for the Jordan Brand. We still don’t know the actual details on whether Drake has officially left the brand or not. The news of letting Kawhi Leonard walk later this fall is not surprising and is probably a great move on their part. The brand’s biggest hits this summer have been collaborations with entertainer Travis Scott and Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Scott’s Air Jordan IV will probably land on several sneaker rankings, as it was one of the most sought after releases this summer. Expect the brand to pick stream this fall with Air Jordan 33 and retro models on deck.
While it is too early to tell if Puma will become a major player in the basketball business, the brand stole headlines this summer by signing top NBA draft picks, Ayton, Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith. The German-based company also announced the signings of Celtics guard Terry Rozier and Spurs forward Rudy Gay to their roster.
The first sneaker the brand unveiled, the Clyde Court Disrupt received mixed reactions on social media and Ayton had some complications wearing them at Summer League.
With a backing from Jay-Z and what seems like a boatload of endorsement money, Puma has re-entered the basketball business very bashful and flashy. The brand recently hinted that they were interested in Kawhi Leonard on Instagram.
Winner: Klay Thompson
Because China Klay is the best thing to ever happen to the sneaker industry.