Many outsiders to the game of basketball don’t get just how big the shoe industry is. One does not simply buy a pair of basketball shoes that aren’t attached to a player’s name and brand. They almost don’t exist anymore, and the ones that do exist are almost intentionally poor products. They want you to ‘pay up’ for your favorite players shoe, and in this massive industry one guy changed everything with one meeting.
Curry is famous for playing a massive role in the recent changes to the way that NBA basketball is played, but he also played a massive role in how shoe companies evaluate and pitch young players. When Curry was approached by Nike for a potential shoe deal, he was given cookie cutter presentation that actually had the wrong name (Kevin Durant) on some of the slides.
Had Nike put more than 30 minutes of thought and effor into the pitch, they would have quickly realized that Curry is not your typical NBA player. His father played in the league for nearly two decades, he played the game differently than anyone else the league had ever seen, and would have been much more open to a unique presentation than the junk they through together.
Unimpressed, he left Nike without a deal. Under Armour, however, saw the potential in Curry as a young, flashy, genuinely unique potential superstar, and went all in on getting him to sign. They started by not only sending him loads of merch and offers, but also a young teammate that they knew had Curry’s ear, Kent Bazemore.
The unique approach worked, and eventually Bazemore and the Under Armour execs were able to convince Curry to think outside of the box and sign with UA. Fast forward years later and Curry is a 2 time champion and league MVP and that small shoe deal is now worth over $14 billion to the Under Armour brand.
A Change to the Industry’s Approach
Not only did this success story change the way that all of the major shoe brands attack marketing to young players, but it altered their marketing and production plans altogether. While Nike, Reebok, Adidas, and Under Armour had always paid out big bucks for the big name players, they were now paying out big bucks to lesser known players, and even teammates of young stars. Whatever it takes to catch the next Steph Curry.
What has resulted is a complete name-driven shoe industry. Aside from a few shoes produced specifically for department stores, if you want to buy a pair of basketball shoes from one of the big name companies, you are likely forced to buy a player’s shoe. The price you pay tends to be determined by a combination of quality and name. Durant, Lebron, Harden, and Curry have the largest brands in the industry and their shoes are made of considerably higher quality material and cost significantly more.
Case in point: if you were to go to the EastBay website today and look for an Adidas shoe the two they are going to push to you are James Harden and Damian Lillard. The Harden’s are made of slightly higher end materials, but performance wise most reviews would agree both shoes perform similarly. The Harden’s cost $160 and the Dame’s are on sale for $74.99.
This has repercussions that can be felt across the sport. Perhaps the biggest are felt at the high school level. Players are now being groomed by the shoe companies at the age of 15 and 16 years. College basketball is struggling to keep shoe execs out of the ears of their incoming freshman and current superstars, and money is being thrown around the AAU circuit like we have never seen before.
While I don’t think the structure of offering shoes backed solely by player sponsorship deals is necessarily flawed, the system itself is undoubtedly flawed. There has to be a way to keep agents and shoe reps away from these kids, and I think it has to start at the federal level. It seems that at this point, really cracking down on this behavior and the grown men and women behind it is the only way to slow it down..