LeBron James is the NBA’s best player, and arguably the league’s most popular. (He received the most fan votes for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.) But according to sneaker industry experts, he’s not the most important basketball star to his brand sponsor, Nike.
“The focus now is on Kyrie [Irving]. He’s the focal point on an East Coast team, and it makes sense for [Nike] to focus on Kyrie in the short term and bring that [sneaker] line up,” explained Ankur Amin, co-owner of Long Island, N.Y.-based athletic boutique Renarts. “And they’ve done a fantastic job with the product.”
Irving, James’ former teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers, is now the star on a young and hungry Boston Celtics squad. The 25-year-old guard is on his fourth signature shoe with the Swoosh, the Nike Kyrie 4, which retails for $120.
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Star power, paired with a digestible price point, has helped propel Irving’s shoes to the forefront of Nike’s basketball category sales.
“LeBron still captures tremendous imagination on the part of the consumer, but Kyrie has driven more sales than any other marquee [basketball] athlete in the last 12 to 18 months,” said Matt Powell, senior industry advisor for sports with The NPD Group.
Although the shoe is a best basketball seller for Nike, the sport’s shoe sales with all brands are tepid, in part to the shift away from the performance hoops style in fashion. But Nike is still moving units of the Kyrie 4, and Peng Cheng, owner of the West Coast-based boutique Bait, believes it’s the model’s appearance that’s helping.
“To me, it doesn’t look as technical, performance-based, as the other signature shoes,” Cheng explained. “It’s more built for kids to just wear.”
Despite experts believing Irving is Nike’s best player asset in basketball, some believe the brand still isn’t getting its money’s worth having him on its ambassador roster.
“He’s an asset, but I don’t think he’s worth what he’s getting paid,” Powell said. “If you translate the cost of the athlete and look at it as a marketing expense, and look at how many dollars they’re selling in footwear, there’s no profitable relationship. None of these guys are earning out the money they’re being paid.”
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