Why Shoe Brands Are Banking On March Madness

Let the mayhem begin.

In just a few days, the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, also known as March Madness, will thrill and delight college basketball fans around the world.

As hoop lovers gather in front of television screens and even trek to various cities to witness the events in person over the next few weeks, shoe brands will be hard at work executing strategies for tapping into the craze.

According to sports-industry analyst Matt Powell, March Madness is the fifth most-important selling period for basketball shoes. With heightened interest in running and casual-athletic styles, basketball sneakers have been feeling the pressure to hold on to the number two spot (for sales by athletic category), and March Madness could be just the jolt the category needs.

According to data compiled by SportsOneSource, running accounted for 38.6 percent of athletic-footwear sales in 2015. Basketball was the second-largest category in the athletic market, with 22 percent of sales — a 0.7 percent drop from 2014 — followed by casual athletic footwear, with 21.3 percent, up from 18.9 percent in 2014.

Ahead of the 2016 NCAA tournament, basketball sales have already seen some acceleration. In the first week of March, basketball category sales gained 13.3 percent year-over-year, while the prior week saw a sales jump of 24.3 percent, according to a report by Citi Research analyst Kate McShane.

March Madness gets the consumer in the mindset to buy basketball product,” said Jeff Van Sinderen, a footwear-and-apparel industry analyst with B. Riley & Co. LLC. “They look at what brands the players are wearing, the new styles promoted by the shoe brands and so on. Of course, the rising star players draw a lot of attention, including what shoes they are wearing.”

But beyond direct sales, the bigger business strategy applied by shoe brands during March Madness promises a later payoff.

This is ‘recruiting season’ for the brands,” Van Sinderen noted. “They see who the latest rising stars are and work to ‘align and sign’ the best of the best performers. It paves the way for brands to bring on new team members’ — many long relationships between brands and players have sprouted out of March Madness.

Powell noted that the mega shoe brands lead the pact when it comes to sponsorships of NCAA tournament teams.

At the beginning of last year’s tournament, Nike had shoe contracts with 49 teams, or 72 percent of the field, Powell said. Adidas had 11 teams, Under Armour had six, and Jordan Brand had two.

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