Can NBA Star Kawhi Leonard Give New Balance the Boost in Basketball it Needs?

Kawhi Leonard delivered a moment last night that NBA fans will remember for years to come. With his New Balance OMN1S “2-Way” sneakers laced up, the baller nailed an epic buzzer-beater, sending his Toronto Raptors to the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

The moment was huge for New Balance: one of basketball’s biggest stars did the impossible in its footwear after decades away from the sport. (The brand signed Leonard to a multiyear deal in November. Terms were not disclosed.) But sneaker industry insiders are split on the impact the moment — and Leonard’s continued on-court dominance on the world’s biggest stage — will have on the brand and sneaker sales.

Sneaker media veteran Jeffrey Dobbs wasted no time stating on Twitter that New Balance can have his money following Leonard’s incredible shot.

“Moments make me want shoes, not hype. Those Kawhi’s will be purchased,” he wrote on the social media platform.

And B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen believes Dobbs isn’t alone — at least when it comes to basketball product.

“Don’t think there’s going to be an issue selling Kawhi signature shoes anytime soon,” Van Sinderen said. “The NB brand association to Kawhi enhances relevance in their b-ball shoes, but whether a broader halo effect develops on other classifications of NB shoes remains to be seen.”

However, The NPD Group Inc.’s senior sports industry analyst Matt Powell has reservations.

“I have never seen a performance on the court move the needle whether the athlete has a good game or a bad game. I have never seen it affect the trajectory of sales,” Powell said. “For instance, LeBron [James] remains the top selling marquee athlete and his team’s not even in the playoffs.”

And Powell’s skepticism doesn’t seem unwarranted.

According to data provided by The NPD Group Inc., basketball sneaker sales have been on a steady decline for years. The firm stated sales dropped 12% and 7% in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and as of March are down 21% for the year.

“If basketball ever comes back as fashion, and I’m skeptical, the new brands who make an entry here have an opportunity to leverage [moments like Leonard’s],” Powell said. “But given the current trajectory of basketball I’m not expecting that to happen any time soon. The category continues to shrink and there’s just not that much to be gained.”

What Leonard does for New Balance, according to Powell, is give the brand authenticity, something a company returning to the sport needs.

“Brands need athletes performing at a high level wearing their products, that’s a given. It builds credibility and authenticity for the brand. From a credibility and authenticity point of view he’s going to bring them a lot,” Powell said. “A player playing at a high level wearing their products is certainly a wonderful endorsement, so there is an indirect feeling towards the brand.”

And Van Sinderen is confident the association with Leonard will pay off.

“What more could New Balance ask for from Kawhi’s recent performance on the court? Plenty of fans know what shoe brand Kawhi is wearing and would think his obscene performance on the court underpins the technical prowess of the shoes,” Van Sinderen said. “Net, [the] Kawhi-NB alliance is only elevating the NB brand at this point.”

He continued, “The b-ball category is intensely competitive and tough to penetrate from the get go. Differentiation in product content, as well as the style, demeanor and likeableness of the players that wear and sponsor the shoes [and] brands, are important. To the extent that Kawhi plays well and remains relevant, which we’d anticipate he will for years to come, the New Balance brand should benefit. Kawhi is cool for all the right reasons, at this juncture.”

New Balance released the “2-Way” pack on May 7 featuring the court-ready OMN1S and a complementary 997 Sport, both retailing for $140. The shoes sold out in minutes and received bids on the resale market by 11 a.m. ET the next day for $594 and $750, respectively.

New Balance OMN1S 997 Sport 2-Way
(From top): The New Balance OMN1S and the 997 Sport from the “2-Way” pack.
CREDIT: New Balance

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