Devin Harris didn’t need a team of advisers or a free agent-like tour when it was time to choose a shoe company.
He wore a certain brand growing up and in college, so his choice for the NBA was easy.
“My decision was quick and painless,” Harris said. “I’ve been wearing adidas since I was 12. All the AAU teams I played on wore adidas. My college was adidas. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Harris has stuck with adidas throughout his 11-year career, and became a focal point for the company when he became an All-Star in 2009 while playing for the New Jersey Nets.
Sneakers are personal. For many, they ooze character, individualism and style. Forget for a second that they’re mass produced and worn by millions around the world.
Kicks are big deal.
And they mean big money.
Shoe contracts in the NBA — and increasingly at the college level — are staggering for the biggest of stars and programs.
Deals by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Steph Curry rival the cost of some franchises. Schools such as Texas, Notre Dame and Michigan are leveraging their brands, along with their bottom lines, with apparel giants all too willing to marry their logos to academia.
The NBA recently made a monumental switch, going from official outfitter adidas to Nike starting with the 2017-18 season. The switch from one global conglomerate to another was worth an estimated $1 billion for the league.
With that kind of cash, it’s no wonder the NBA is adding the Swoosh to their uniforms. (adidas was prominently shown on practice and warmup gear, but the three stripes were never on game unis.)
“This partnership with Nike represents a new paradigm in the structure of our global merchandising business,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “As our exclusive on-court apparel provider, Nike will be instrumental in our collective efforts to grow the game globally while applying the latest in technology to the design of our uniforms and on-court products.”
The league is hardly the only one cashing in. Durant signed a 10-year deal in the neighborhood of $300 million with Nike after serious flirtation with Under Armour. Harden left Nike for $200 million from adidas over 13 years. James’ new deal to stay with Nike reportedly dwarfs both of those deals, though numbers haven’t leaked out.
“I’m very humble, man,” James told reporters on December. “It’s been an unbelievable time for myself and my family, and I’m just grateful that Nike and Phil Knight and everyone over there just believed in a skinny-old, skinny 18-year-old kid from Akron, Ohio, and I’m happy to be a part of such a great company.”
As much as money plays a part — and how can it not — today’s top-tier pitchmen are looking for more on top of the financial windfall. Harden wanted to be involved in the branding and marketing of his bearded image.
“Just everything, however I want it, I have a say-so,” Harden said before the season started. “I have a voice that can and will be heard. I have a pretty strong voice, whether it’s designing my shoe, designing my clothing, just everything, everything that the brand has to offer. I’ll definitely voice my opinion.”
Even for players not in the stratosphere of James and Durant realize the business importance of lining up with the right company.
“It’s definitely a way to brand yourself,” Harris said. “It’s usually the first endorsement you get. It gets you started in that kind of world. It’s what you make of it.
“Your goal is to not touch your NBA money and live off endorsements. The shoe contract definitely allows you to do that.”
Shoe companies wouldn’t be able to shell out this kind of dough if not for the visibility provided by these stars and these programs. Kids, well, their parents are buying this stuff so they can be like Mike. Michael Jordan remains the gold standard, pulling in an estimated $90-100 million annually from his Air Jordan line.
The same can be said for those unpaid pitchmen. At a time when paying college players is a national debate, name-brand schools are breaking the bank.
Notre Dame will pull in $90 million over 10 years from Under Amour, while Michigan is netting $169 million over 11 years from Nike. Texas then upped the ante with a deal that rivals the revenue generated by the Longhorn Network, a 15-year contract from Nike worth $250 million.
As much as basketball shoes are commerce, for the vast majority of those who lace them up, it’s art for your feet.
“It’s a style,” said James’ teammate and noted sneakerphile Jared Cunningham. “I wear a lot of old LeBrons and Jordans. A lot of these I wasn’t able to get growing up and I can get now. It feels great to wear the shoes I always wanted.”