Which Sneaker Brand Will Zion Williamson Sign With?

Inside the ‘biggest bidding war ever to be done’

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Zion Williamson has been declared the best NBA prospect since Anthony Davis, or even Kevin Durant, depending on who you ask. Saying that teams have been tanking for Zion doesn’t really mean much anymore, but the bottom eight teams have been eagerly awaiting the NBA draft lottery since Zion’s first track meet (but with dunks) in November. He’s both the consensus number one overall pick and as close as a sure thing to a franchise overhaul as a prospect can be. But where Zion ends up team-wise could turn out to be less notable than his forthcoming negotiation for an apparel deal.

Sneaker legend Sonny Vaccaro—the same guy who signed Michael Jordan to Nike—has lofty expectations for Zion’s career as the face of sneaker brand. “If Zion doesn’t change, I predict that he will be the first basketball athlete at 18 years old that the world is rooting for to become a billionaire. I say billionaire, very easily,” Vaccaro told ESPN. “He is going to have an opportunity to be the face of every company and every major corporation. He is the most marketable person I’ve seen, for a lot of different reasons.”

This take has a little bit more mustard on it when you consider that the performance sneaker category has been on the decline since 2015. But the reality is that the performance category is more uncertain than ever, which is what makes the 18-year-old’s decision that much more interesting.

While the success of most incoming rookies is super dependent on the situation of the team they’re drafted to, Zion appears to be as culture-proof as you can be. His ability to play multiple positions will make it easy to plug him into any lineup regardless of established veterans, and his mentality and effort will make him able to truck through even the most toxic of locker rooms. The bottom five teams (who hold a combined 65% chance of getting the number one pick) are all equally formidable options with entertaining story lines that ensure he won’t be wasted in any city.

Not sure if you’ve heard, but New York (14%) is the mecca of basketball and covered head to toe in rumors of signing one (or two!) All-Stars this summer. Cleveland (14%) lucking into the opportunity to run it back with the heir to the throne is a worthy plot line, and in Phoenix (14%), Zion would be a scary addition to last year’s number one pick, DeAndre Ayton, and future superstar Devin Booker. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen would be perfect complements to Zion’s game, and Chicago (12.5%) has its own undertone of legacy. And finally, the 6-foot-7, 284-pound Draymond 3.0 would complete Atlanta’s (12.5%) blueprints to replicate the Warriors.

Of course, Zion will drastically change the trajectory of the franchise that drafts him, but the point is that he’s going to ball no matter what. On the other hand, his decision to sign with one sneaker brand over the other can go in so many different ways. He could tip the scale between Nike and Adidas, give the required firepower to Puma or Reebok to compete with the big box brands, sign with a foreign brand like Li-Ning and change the sneaker landscape for generations, or even start his own brand.

Nike is the clear favorite here as the company is most experienced with handling the personal brands of Michael Jordan and the two “Michael Jordans of their generation,” Kobe and LeBron, plus Nike has already proved that it will literally fly to the ends of the earth to make sure Zion has a comfortable shoe. Signing with the checkmark would surely be the least interesting decision though.

Adidas has been on the heels of Nike for the last few years and landing Zion could be enough to surpass the frontrunner. Maybe Zion won’t ever be comparable to MJ, LeBron or Kobe on the court but being the champion to dethrone Nike leaves a legacy just as loud.  

Puma made a huge splash last offseason, and the youth of the company would allow Zion a chance to make himself synonymous with a brand before he plays his first game. But where things get really funky is considering a completely unorthodox sneaker brand.

Because Zion holds so much leverage here, it’s almost a lock that he is the first player to have a signature shoe in his first year since LeBron. (Typically, Nike does not give a player a signature line until his career is well underway and his reputation is established throughout the league.) This means that within a year, a brand like Li-Ning could go from being a niche basketball brand in the U.S. to being in every AAU tourney in America.

Zion’s sneaker decision also holds an importance greater than his draft destination because it’s not just the logo that he aligns himself with as much as it’s the terms and implications in which he does. “In my lifetime, I think it’s going to be the biggest bidding war ever done,” said Vaccaro.

Sneaker brands simply have more at stake here than the NBA team that gets to draft Zion. At worst, if he’s a fringe All-Star under team control for four years, an NBA team assumes little risk on a rookie deal, but because he holds so much leverage before even playing a game, he’s in a position to sign a nine-figure contract and get great exposure for whichever corporation he signs with. Nike would be able to absorb the hit, but if he signs with a smaller brand making an aggressive play, like Puma, and then flops, he could be the last player ever signed by that brand.

Finally, seeing someone write a number on a check can only be so exciting. I’m most interested in Zion’s imagination here. Two signature shoes per year? Puma has a jet—can your brand offer access to a fleet? Or to Elon Musk’s hyperloop? “Consultant” job offers for extended family members? Feel like a feature film franchise should be a lock.

Zion has the world at his feet. This decision will ripple through the business of sports, no matter what he decides.

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