Rising Basketball Star Zion Williamson Could Start the Next Great Sneaker Bidding War

Zion Williamson is undeniably college basketball’s biggest star and is widely considered a generational talent. So industry insiders expect brands to fight over him when he declares for the NBA Draft.

“Zion arguably is literally ‘bigger than life.’ He has a major physical presence on the court that one could say belies his athleticism and agility — and ability to defy gravity with his jump skills. And he is undoubtedly a rising star who seems to be likable,” said B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen. “Those are important qualities as they relate to being a brand ambassador.”

But the brand he will choose to sign with is up in the air.

Williamson plays for Duke University, a Nike-backed school, but was spotted on Instagram live recently rocking Adidas head to toe. And after Williamson’s on-court sneaker blowout incident in February, Puma mentioned he’d fare better in the brand’s sneakers on Twitter (in a tweet the brand would eventually delete).

The NPD Group Inc.’s senior sports industry analyst Matt Powell believes every brand invested in the sport has a shot. Vansinderen thinks the list is narrower, with Adidas and Puma as frontrunners. And Ankur Amin, CEO of TGS (the parent company to retailers including Extra Butter), believes Nike and Puma are likely the leaders to sign the baller.

But when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, regardless of familiarity with a given brand, money could prove to be the biggest factor.

“My opinion is he’s going to sign with whoever pays him the most money. It’s going to be who wants to step up, that’s who will have the advantage,” Powell said.

Although a bidding war is expected, experts disagree on if Williamson will have product from a brand bearing his name. Powell and Vansinderen think a signature shoe may come to fruition, but not right away. Amin sees it differently.

“With Nike, it seems like a signature shoe would happen. But if anybody else signs him then absolutely, it would be an opportunity missed if not done immediately,” Amin said. “I can’t imagine [a brand such as] Puma signing him and not giving him a signature shoe immediately.”

He continued, “If he fulfills his potential [on the court] he could have a major impact on most brands. He could be the face of an entire line for a company, the face of an entire business unit.”

Despite insiders agreeing on his star power, Powell has some doubts concerning Williamson’s ability to sell sneakers.

“While he doesn’t play center he’s built like a center and traditionally big men have not sold shoes,” Powell said. “It will be interesting if he could generate the kind of interest in footwear. Guys of his size need a very structured shoe, not a guard’s kind of shoe, the kind a shoe that a 12-year-old is going to wear to school. That may limit the merchandising upside.”

But brands are already invested in ballers who play the same position as Williamson. Three of Nike’s signature athletes (LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul George) are all forwards. The brand’s other active player with a shoe is Kyrie Irving, a guard.

However, labels other than the Swoosh are more guard heavy: Under Armour has Stephen Curry and Adidas is aligned with James Harden, Damian Lillard and Derrick Rose.

Williamson and Duke will start March Madness on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

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