The NBA Playoffs are in full swing and have already been a boon to TV networks, especially ESPN, which is exclusively airing the Western Conference Finals. It reported that the first matchups between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers were some of its highest-rated conference finals games.
A few things are working in the NBA’s favor. Overall, the league’s best players have star power that transcends the game, and its social media followings on Instagram and Twitter dwarfs the other three major U.S. sports.
Plus, some of its most popular players are still in contention, including Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson of the Warriors, and Damian Lillard of the Trail Blazers, Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Of interest to the shoe industry is the fact that all of these marquee athletes have signature sneaker lines: Curry is with Under Armour, Thompson is with Anta, Lillard works with Adidas, Leonard are with New Balance, and Durant and Antetokounmpo are with Nike (the latter athlete’s debut signature style is scheduled to drop in June).
Logic dictates that today’s basketball boom would translate to the sneaker business. But it hasn’t, and despite the obvious popularity, experts say that even a banner playoffs season won’t save the struggling basketball shoe market.
The category has been in steep decline for years, according to data provided by The NPD Group Inc. Already in 2019, sales have plummeted 21% — that’s on top of a 7% decline in 2018 and 12% drop in 2017.
NPD senior sports industry analyst Matt Powell has been heralding the decline of basketball for years, citing the changing consumer trends.
“When LeBron went to L.A., his sales got better because he was in a new market, and fans of his in L.A. bought his shoes to get closer to the player. But it didn’t turn around the fortunes of the category,” Powell said. “Basketball shoes are out of fashion. People are just not wearing basketball shoes on the street right now. That’s the primary factor when you break down why we’re not seeing any growth in the category; therefore, the players are not motivators here.”
Still, top brands in the marketplace are investing heavily in the sport.
In June 2018, Puma made a splashy return to basketball after a 20-year absence, signing rookies Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith. Then, in November, New Balance surprised sports fans when it signed Leonard to a multiyear endorsement deal. And just last month, Converse announced its reentry to the market with a new court-ready sneaker, the All Star Pro BB.
Meanwhile, Under Armour continues to churn out new versions of its Curry franchise (now on version 6) — and for good reason.
According to Q Scores, a firm that evaluates the strength of consumer emotional connection with celebrities, Curry leads all NBA players with a 28% positive score in 2019. And he has the No. 2-selling jersey on the market, according to NBAstore.com.
But famed sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro noted that fans often get bored seeing the same faces on the court and tend to get fired up about the shiny new additions to the league, such as Zion Williamson, who is expected to be the No. 1 draft pick on June 20.
“There’s not an exciting person [in the NBA now]. The most exciting person is the kid who was just drafted,” said Vaccaro. “That speaks volumes to the problem of the shoe industry today [because] guys like Curry and Durant are arguably some of the greatest players that ever played.”
Vaccaro continued, “We’ve seen Durant and Steph win championships, we’ve seen Draymond Green become a celebrity and a good player, but they’ve all been [to the NBA Finals] before. The game is stale. LeBron James made 19 playoffs in a row — that becomes old. Basketball and the shoe industry need Zion to become a thing.”
Foot Locker chairman, president and CEO Dick Johnson predicted that even if something spectacular happens in the playoffs, the shoe market shouldn’t expect an improvement.
“The top players build their reputation through consistency over seasons, and so a singular playoff performance does not necessarily change the consumer perception and move the needle,” he said.
Johnson added that in Foot Locker’s stores, the biggest sales are coming from nonmarquee product.
“Our signature business continues to be challenging, but our overall basketball business — including Nike Sportswear and Jordan — is solid, showing that the lifestyle of basketball is very relevant,” Johnson said.
Ankur Amin, the CEO of TGS (parent company to retailers including Renarts), also pointed to the continuing strength of the NBA’s long-retired superstar. “For us, Jordans still dominate the basketball category. The Air Jordan 1 has been on a sustained roll for over a year now, with little slowdown in sight,” said Amin. “And Jordan’s React shoes were well received as a performance product by players.”
However, Amin did offer a glimmer of hope for the shoes of today’s ballers.
“Giannis’ Nike Freak 1 is somewhat anticipated by our consumers, [and] Kawhi’s OMN1s were well received,” he said of the market’s newest contenders.
Indeed, Leonard’s performance in the opening round of the playoffs garnered major buzz among fans, prompting some market watchers to predict he will be a good sales partner for New Balance.
B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen told FN at the time, “[I] don’t think there’s going to be an issue selling Kawhi signature shoes anytime soon. 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.”
Check out the behind-the-scenes video of NBA star Stephen Curry’s cover shoot with FN below.