Puma is coming off the bench this season.
Sidelined from basketball for 20 years, the brand rebounded in June, announcing it would return to the sport. But the athletic giant isn’t approaching the category from a strictly performance standpoint. Ryan Cross, GM for basketball, said the brand’s focus is on creating “the ultimate intersection of sport and lifestyle.”
“We are back into basketball because this amazing sport also has tremendous lifestyle appeal. What happens around the court is exciting also — what [players] are wearing to the game, from the game, who is at the game and who is sitting courtside,” he explained.
Cross continued, “We want to make sure the shoe performs well and we are confident in our ability to do that, but ultimately, we want to make sure it looks good.”
To tackle this, Puma reached into its vault to reinvent the classic Clyde sneaker, its signature basketball model from 1973 for retired NBA legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier, into the Clyde Court Disrupt.
The game-ready sneakers, which arrive Oct. 4, will retail for $120. The kicks are executed with the brand’s proprietary Hybrid Foam cushioning and an engineered knit upper.
Last month in Las Vegas, the shoes made their on-court debut during NBA Summer League play. In the weeks shortly after, brand ambassador Skylar Diggins-Smith rocked a red and black colorway during the WNBA All-Star Game.
Though the Clyde Court Disrupt is cut only in men’s sizing and it’s the sole new basketball silhouette it has showcased, the brand’s intention is to eventually expand.
“After the first season, the goal is to have multiple models at [different] price points that can serve different types of players and needs. [We want] to have a true women’s assortment and a fully mature and broad assortment that would serve kids all the way to NBA players. How quickly we get there will depend on how quickly we can move,” said Cross.
Aside from internal design and development teams, Puma recruited help by way of San Antonio Spurs forward Rudy Gay. The baller provided critical feedback behind the scenes ahead of the company’s re-entry into basketball.
“We found Rudy very early on in our process, and he allowed us to give him prototypes to practice and work out in. We had an elite player letting us know what worked and what didn’t work months in advance,” stated Cross.
Aside from Puma’s in-house skills and Gay’s input on shoe design, the brand also tapped rap megastar Jay-Z to be its creative director. Though the Roc Nation co-founder and music mogul is in the throes of his “On the Run II” tour with wife Beyoncé, he was “heavily involved in the creation of that product,” Adam Petrick, the label’s global director of brand and marketing, told FN at the time of the announcement.
“Jay is an amazing creative collaborator. He’s a visionary when it comes to his music and style, and the way he influences pop culture. We work with him on colors of shoes, particular tones, how we approach our marketing and things like that. It’s amazing to collect input from someone who could be called an icon,” Cross stated.
But working with Jay-Z wasn’t the only big move the brand made in its return to the category. It also signed Frazier to a lifetime deal and nabbed rookies Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.
“I decided to sign with Puma over other brands because I felt like they were different. I like their approach to everything and how warm they made me feel. They made me feel part of the brand,” Porter, first-round draft pick for the Denver Nuggets, explained to FN.
But for Ayton, the No. 1 overall draft pick for the Phoenix Suns, the connection was personal.
“I grew up around Puma. The national team for the Bahamas was always sponsored by Puma, and their gear was always in stores,” Ayton said. “And being with Puma, I can be my own superstar. … I want to start my own thing, I want to be a superstar to the brand, the face of the brand. This is the right move.”
However, the onslaught of major announcements, while invigorating, does not guarantee success. Not to mention, Puma is just warming up in a field where Nike and Adidas are well-trained.
In addition, industry analysts such as Matt Powell of The NPD Group Inc. have continued to state that the basketball business remains challenged. The company’s senior industry adviser for sports has also dismissed the conventional method of big rookie signings as being impactful.
But Emory Jones, head of apparel and merchandise for Jay-Z’s clothing brand Paper Planes, feels growth or competing with the top dogs is not what will make Puma a success in the sport.
“That’s the problem a lot of the time when other brands try to get in that space. They try to fight with Nike and Adidas. You can’t win that battle. You’ve got to be happy to be in the game and play your position,” he explained.
Jones added, “LeBron can’t win a championship by himself. You need the little guys to help the big guys. Same with fashion and sneakers. If only one or two brands are working, there’s no creativity in the space. Look at Puma as the sixth man. All your championship teams had a great sixth man.”