LeBron James will make his much-anticipated Los Angeles Lakers home debut Oct. 20 — and the moment is already being marked as a major milestone for the city as well as retailers looking to cash in on the excitement.
Last week, Nike unveiled massive billboards throughout L.A. featuring its star athlete, the best player to don the purple and gold since Kobe Bryant. Other retailers large and small said the baller could fuel big sales gains in the weeks, months and years to come.
But the arrival of King James isn’t the only sports moment worth celebrating in the City of Angels, as the scene is on fire. Its two pro football teams, the Rams and Chargers, are winning on the gridiron, the Galaxy has soccer’s most charismatic figure in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are rolling through the Major League Baseball playoffs.
Sportie LA owner Isack Fadlon — who this summer commissioned Gustavo Zermeno to create a mural outside his Melrose Avenue store for James and the Lakers, drawing 1,000 to 2,000 spectators per day — has a Dodgers mural up and said one for the Rams is coming. “Not in recent memory can I recall this success for licensed product. The impact of winning has been tremendous,” Fadlon said. “We’re selling more, we’re getting more people into the store looking for items to celebrate their teams. And in doing so, they’re buying other things, as well — we’re seeing an impact on footwear.”
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During the NBA offseason, James’ jerseys sold out quickly on eBay. Also, his last signature shoe, the Nike LeBron 15, was a top seller on the site from June 13 to Aug. 31.
“LeBron is marketing gold on and off the court. His move to Los Angeles certainly gives him a bigger platform, if that is even possible,” said Andy Gray, GM and chief merchandising officer of Foot Locker North America. “We’ve seen great consumer demand for the LeBron 16 and his licensed product. He continues to engage basketball fans and sneaker enthusiasts in L.A. and far beyond.”
The excitement James brings should also bode well for new boutique retailers in the area, including Bodega, which is based in the home of the Lakers’ biggest rival: Boston.
“I grew up on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. There was nothing better in sports,” said Jay Gordon, co-owner. “If we do something, we’ll do it the Bodega way — tongue-in-cheek and not very literal that will give a nod to both sides. [And] if the Lakers meet the Celtics in the playoffs, I guarantee we’ll do some stuff for that.”
Another newcomer, Sweden-based Sneakersnstuff, also sees a unique opportunity. After dominating overseas, SNS is opening its second U.S. door in December in Venice, Calif.
“Sports is a way to root ourselves deeper in American culture. The U.S. is now a part of who we are, so we need to understand the conversations that go on every day. That’s where sports become a big part,” said Erik Fagerlind, co-owner of SNS. “To embrace the city, you have to embrace the local teams and be part of that conversation.”
Nike, which opened a new store in Los Angeles this summer, will deliver the “King” iteration of James’ LeBron 16 sneaker to coincide with the regular season opener. And when he hits the Staples Center court two days later, the Swoosh will make a purple iteration of the shoe available for purchase.
While there’s no question retailers are abuzz, one insider cautioned that storeowners shouldn’t stock up on excess shoe inventory. “L.A. has never been a great basketball shoe town. The epicenter for basketball is New York City, and a significant portion of Nike’s basketball sales are in the I-95 corridor between Washington and Boston,” explained Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc. “There will be fans that will come out and buy a LeBron shoe because they’re fans of the Lakers, but the impact won’t be the same as if LeBron were playing for the Knicks or the Celtics.”
What also could have an adverse impact on the sports moment L.A. is having, Powell said, is the current fashion cycle. “Licensed apparel as streetwear is not in fashion. Back in the day when it was, in the early ’90s and 2000s, it surely [impacted footwear sales], and retail thrived,” Powell explained. “[But] you don’t see people wearing jerseys on the street, and if you do, they look weird.”
Fadlon, however, believes a sports-themed moment in fashion is likely coming. “We’ve seen it before, so I don’t see why it can’t happen again,” Fadlon said. “[L.A. sports] could trigger something, especially because L.A. sparks movements and is still the bastion of streetwear.”
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