Why Are NBA Players Signing with Unconventional Basketball Brands?

The new generation isn’t in awe of the big box brands anymore

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Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

In the past, recruitment was a layup for powerhouse brands like Nike, Jordan and Adidas—rookies would sign contracts, wide-eyed, without looking elsewhere unless they were forced to. A co-sign from one of the big footwear brands, plus their proven formula for exposure and access to massive production budgets trumped any other pitch.

But today, players don’t need to rely on sneaker brands to build their platform—they can build them themselves. Instead, the brand needs to fall in line with the player’s brand. And if it isn’t clear from the outfits of any pre-game tunnel shot, today’s NBA hooper has a very distinct brand from those who came before them.

Similar to their peers, they’re anti-establishment, savvy to media and branding and are terrified of fitting in. And now that players’ criteria when shopping for sneaker brands has become more complex, brands have had to become more creative in their recruitment.

Puma flexed on the rest of the industry when they hired the most iconic rags-to-mogul rapper of all time and then bought and offered access to “The Puma Jet” (and named it after Jay-Z, himself). No brand has connected with the new generation better than Puma in the last six months and Terry Rozier made this resonation clear by exclaiming, “I ain’t fu*king with nobody else but Puma.”

Puma’s youthful energy is contrasted by Nike’s legacy. Deandre Ayton implied a fatigue to the checkmark when saying "Nike is Nike. Adidas is Adidas. I've played in their circuits and stuff like that, but now it's a business," Ayton told Bleacher Report. "You don't want just product. You're not a kid anymore. You're really trying to get bank. That's about it." As the changing media landscape equipped NBA players to build their own brands, Nike’s fastball lost some speed.

And Puma isn’t the only brand that sniffed out this new generation’s fascination with avant-garde marketing strategies.

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Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

After hiring the No. 13 ranked high school recruit in the class of 2018, Darius Bazley, as a million-dollar intern (burying the lede, here), New Balance signed Gordon Hayward and Kawhi Leonard, which, in an era where cultural significance and visibility are appreciably more desirable to brands than on-court performance, is a bit questionable. But so is a brand most known for being the official shoe of dads attempting to break into the most stylish sport in the world. It’s a bit unorthodox, but it makes sense. Above everything, this is another indication that players want to associate themselves with brands that align with their personal brand.

The greatest example of the shift in the relationship between mega-corp sneaker companies and player branding is, without a doubt, the Big Baller Brand (NEVA LOST!). Lonzo and family creating his own brand, shoe and clothing line is a consequence of the waning barriers to building and managing a personal brand. After amassing a gigantic media presence, the Balls leaned heavily on their social influence to sell Lonzo’s shoe in addition to a couple of low-budget shoots, e-commerce site and revenue from selling other BBB product.

And at this point, if you have the grassroots hustle and plan to sell your own shoe, that’s all it takes. However, the success of this tactic is still up for debate. Big Baller Brand got an “F” rating by Better Business Bureau and won’t release sales statistics (stay in yo lane), but go to any gym in the country and it’s doubtful you’ll see anyone rocking Lonzo’s signature shoe. (Editor’s note: I am, however, buying my dad a BBB hoodie for Christmas).

The Balls skipped a few steps from conscious player brand building to a full-on corporation, but the BBB master plan might still be a preview of the way future NBA signature brands are constructed. It’s worth noting that Lonzo and the Balls put his signature shoe in motion before Lonzo ever played an NBA game. A self-funded and branded venture like this that relies so heavily on the career success would be a much easier feat for an established player (with an established bank account), so let’s not let the cold sales of the ZO2 discourage another player from trying.

And the way players are investing in their brands on a grassroots level, this shouldn’t be the last time we see a player create their own shoe. Just need another prospect to enter the league with a large following, promising skill and lots of capital. Looking at you, Bronny.

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