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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The NBA’s superstar lull ignites challengers to Nike’s reign

LeBron James’ signature sneakers at Nike’s flagship store in New York in 2010.  (Bloomberg)
By Randall Williams Bloomberg

Who’s got next? That’s been a burning question in the NBA as superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry enter the later stages of their careers.

For years, they dominated the sport and its shoe market with their popular sneaker lines. But their relevance is fading – none of them made it past the first round of the playoffs – and no one has stepped up yet to replace them.

The next two weeks of basketball could change that after the NBA Finals began Thursday. The matchup features teams with young stars who haven’t won a title – often a prerequisite to take off commercially. Jayson Tatum, 26, led Boston to this point. The Celtics are facing the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals and 25-year-old Luka Doncic – fresh off beating Minnesota and 22-year-old Anthony Edwards, who had a breakout season.

The uncertainty over the next face of the league has spawned a frenzy, with brands doling out more shoe deals in hoping to hit on the next megawatt star or just take a slice of a sneaker market in flux. In all, there are nearly 30 signature shoes in the market, almost triple the amount from a decade ago.

“The increased visibility of the athletes is leading more brands to broaden their repertoire with them, and it’s paying off,” said Beth Goldstein, a footwear industry analyst at Circana, a market research firm.

One sign that the basketball shoe market is more up for grabs is that brands rarely associated with the sport are entering the fray.

Skechers built a business that hit $8 billion in sales last year on casual and comfy footwear. But in October, the company debuted performance basketball shoes and signed players including New York Knicks forward Julius Randle to promote them. Then in April, Skechers invested even more in hoops by reportedly inking Joel Embiid, the 2023 MVP, to a deal that might include his own shoe.

New Balance is best known for running shoes, but it’s now released four editions of a signature basketball shoe for Kawhi Leonard, a star for the Los Angeles Clippers who has two NBA rings. The company invested those resources because of the “cultural impact and the overall brand halo that basketball provides,” Trent Casper, New Balance’s general manager of basketball and lifestyle concepts, said in an interview.

Old faces are also returning. Reebok, which once had signature shoes for Dominique Wilkins and Shawn Kemp, hired Los Angeles Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal as its president of basketball in October. O’Neal then enlisted basketball hall-of-famer Allen Iverson as his vice president.

Another catalyst for the boom in shoe deals is that the NBA has the most fans globally of the major pro leagues in America. That means the league’s stars have more oversees fans on TikTok and Instagram than other U.S. athletes, adding to a brand’s return on investment.

“Presence on social media has added a whole other layer as a way of evaluating an athlete’s worth,” said Matt Powell, a senior adviser at consulting firm Spurwink River. “It may be more important than how they perform on the court because you can touch so many people immediately on social media.”

Asian brands are adding to the competition. In January, Nikola Jokić – an NBA champ who has been named MVP three times in the past four seasons – signed a deal with 361 Degrees, a Chinese sportswear brand. NBA players also have signature shoe deals with China-based Anta, Rigorer, Li-Ning and Peak.

Sneaker makers are increasing their bets on the women’s game, too. Nike has shoes in the works for phenom Caitlin Clark and A’ja Wilson, a two-time MVP trying to lead the Las Vegas Aces to a third straight WNBA title. Puma also has a shoe deal with Breanna Stewart, star of the New York Liberty.

The lull between superstar eras in the NBA has big implications for Nike. The sporting goods giant once had more than 90% market share in basketball shoes in North America, but that’s been under pressure for years. Now other parts of its business, such as running, have lost ground to competitors, leading to disappointing results, job cuts and a fading stock.

Nike was so dominant in basketball shoes that few brands even tried to compete. In the 1980s, the company partnered with all-time great Michael Jordan. His signature sneaker, the Air Jordan, became such a force that Nike spun it into its own stand-alone brand in the 1990s.

Sales of the Jordan brand remained strong even after the player retired from the NBA in 2003. Then shoe deals with superstars Kobe Bryant, James and Durant helped keep Nike far above competitors.

But cracks started forming in Nike’s dominance last decade when Curry and his Golden State Warriors became one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. Nike had Curry signed early in his career, but the company flubbed an effort to keep him, and he moved to Under Armour before his star exploded in 2015 when he won MVP and a title.

Nike has been investing heavily on its search for the next face of the NBA. Because it’s bigger and is willing to outspend competitors, it can offer the largest deal. In recent years, it made bets on Ja Morant and Zion Williamson.

But that duo shows the risks of doling out shoe deals to young players. The league suspended Morant, 24, last year for flaunting guns on social media as his signature shoe was about to be released. Williamson, 23, was one of the top draft prospects in recent memory when the New Orleans Pelicans selected him in 2019, but injuries slowed his career.

“Athletes are people and people make mistakes and get in trouble,” Powell said. “And when an athlete get into trouble it has a negative impact on their sales.”

The Finals might be just what Nike needs. Doncic and Tatum have signature shoes with the Jordan brand. They are established stars who have made deep playoff runs. A standout series that captures the broader public’s attention will likely catapult them higher.

Or perhaps Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 center, will be that next stratospheric star. He signed with Nike and then won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year this season after being the top pick in the draft. There haven’t been many centers, however, with top-selling sneakers.

High-scoring guards, such as Jordan and Bryant, have often dominated. This may bode well for Adidas because it unveiled a signature shoe for Edwards last year for his fourth season. He then went out and led the Timberwolves to their best performance in two decades while garnering comparisons to Jordan with his monstrous dunks and skillful play.

Edwards’ signature shoe repeatedly sold out when a new color was introduced, Adidas said in its 2023 annual report, as sales in its basketball category increased at a double-digit percentage, while the company’s overall revenue fell about 5%. Sneaker chain Foot Locker recently highlighted his shoes for how fast sales are gaining

While Edwards’ season ended last week, there are more opportunities ahead. He’ll be the youngest player on the U.S. Olympic basketball team next month in Paris. Like the NBA playoffs, the Olympics can serve as a springboard for rising stars.

But he could also get overshadowed by household names. That team also includes James, Durant and Curry.

With assistance from Tim Loh and Kim Bhasin.