Will Bball Sales Win the Winter Season?

NEW YORK — The basketball business could get a bounce this season.

With the NBA season set to kick off tomorrow night, a number of big retailers said last week they are bullish about the category overall, after several years of weak sales. But what part of the business is growing?

In his company’s second-quarter earnings call last month, Finish Line Chairman and CEO Alan Cohen said basketball sales at the Indianapolis-based chain were up in the low double digits for the quarter. A big part of that, he said, was driven by Jordan and Nike performance shoes and on-court, unbranded product.

Todd Kirssin, DMM of footwear for Baltimore-based chain Downtown Locker Room, said at least 40 percent of the retailer’s footwear business came from marquee product and retro basketball styles. “It’s never been as good as right now,” said Kirssin.

At Foot Locker’s three nameplates, where basketball is the “single biggest category,” nonperformance looks are leading the charge, according to Keith Daly, president and CEO of Foot Locker, Foot Action and Foot Locker Kids.

“A big piece of the basketball business is less performance, more lifestyle,” he said.

But Daly said he’s also been encouraged by recent gains the chains have seen in the performance category (the non-heritage shoes that don’t carry the name of any particular player). “Performance had been nonexistent until [Nike’s] Hyperdunk showed up,” he said. And while Daly declined to disclose what percentage the category now made up total sales, he said, “We’re very encouraged. It’s completely reenergized what had been a very soft category.”

Earlier this month, Foot Locker opened a House of Hoops shop-in-shop in Los Angeles’ Beverly Center. A third version of its Nike collaboration will open in November in Chicago’s North Riverside Park Mall, where it will convert a previous Foot Locker store.

For their part, vendors are hoping new product launches can energize their core 12- to-20-year-old male consumer.

Lawrence Norman, VP of global basketball for Adidas, said, “I’m pretty bullish on basketball in general.” The Portland, Ore.-based company — the official sponsor of the NBA — is launching its newest performance collection, Command and Create, next month.

The product, which is divided into shoes for both power and finesse players, will be supported all season long with targeted special product releases and a comprehensive marketing campaign that ties print and TV into the online centerpiece, Adidasbasketball.com, which relaunches tomorrow.

Nike, meanwhile, will be bringing new colorways of its Hyperdunk to market throughout the season. And Canton, Mass.-based Reebok, a division of Adidas, is targeting high-school players with its court-ready “Talkin Krazy” launch of dry-erase-upper shoes.

But some insiders think the growth is overshadowing a major weakness: performance.

“Sales for the last four weeks in performance have been down 25 percent,” said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource. “It’s very clear that performance basketball shoes are becoming a team sport kind of footwear.” The Hyperdunk, he said, “did fine, but it’s not enough to move the needle.” Heritage basketball looks, he said, have some traction, but not because of their on-court bonafides. “Kids don’t come in to the store any longer and ask, ‘Where are your basketball shoes?’” he said. “They come in and ask, ‘What’s cool?’”

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