Sonny Vaccaro is tied to some of the biggest sneaker deals to date with basketball legends including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. However, with the NBA season on hold, who the next big thing on the court and in footwear is remains uncertain.
The now retired sports marketing executive, who worked for athletic giants Nike, Reebok and Adidas, believes this uncertainty puts brands in an uneasy position and hinders them from signing the next big deal with a can’t-miss superstar.
As the NBA figures out what it will do next, Vaccaro spoke with FN about how disruptive a delayed pro and college season is to long-term marketing plans and gives advice on how companies should use their stars right now.
What is the single biggest problem right now concerning brands and marketing with the NBA season delayed?
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Sonny Vaccaro: “What do you what do you write about? What does everybody write about? The new phenom. There’s always gotta be a replacement, there’s always gotta be a next Michael, there are always going to be a guy in this town and turns turn city around. There’s nobody to prepare for. You don’t know at this moment who is going to be that guy. There’s nobody to write the material for.”
How far out are marketing plans for soon-to-be NBA athletes developed? And how much flexibility is planned within them?
SV: “I would say this as an outsider who is still in contact with that world because of the athletes who go into the pros, because I’m not a part of any of the companies for the last 12 or 13 years. From personal knowledge, for the last four or five years I’ve talked personally to the parents of the kids who are the new icons, the ones I talked to inevitably went in the [NBA Draft] lottery. Marketing dollars start at the AAU level now, let’s just be honest. That’s why there were scandals, that’s why there’s hype of having them on college teams to go to the Final Four. The stars, the ones earn the biggest contracts, they’re on hold right now because there’s no one to get ready for, there’s nowhere to go. What are they going to write about? Who are they going to make a platform for?
What are the biggest challenges for brands with the uncertainty of both the NBA season and college basketball?
SV: “What could possibly go wrong more than if this season’s wiped out? Next year, we have those five kids going to the elite league, the G League, and Europeans we haven’t seen — there might be a Luka Doncic out there somewhere, I don’t know — in next year’s draft playing. They’re not going to play for another year. There’s no commercials on people who aren’t playing. We got Jimmy coming. Okay, let’s see Jimmy play. There is going to be a glut of athletes at the beginning of next season but there’s no one to spend on. ‘We signed Jimmy.’ ‘When can we see him?’ ‘You can’t?’ Are they worth a multi million dollar deal? Marketing dollars are sitting there and personnel is drawing pictures but this isn’t a movie, this is a real life presentation and it’s delayed to next year. You can’t do that with athletes. Who’s the next hero is what’s on the public’s mind.”
How about for existing athletes? Do brands have flexibility within the marketing plans created for them to use them effectively today?
SV: “They probably do but what what are you going to make? They’re not playing. There’s nothing to do, it’s the same commercial they did yesterday when they were playing. Maybe LeBron [James] has more flexibility now, he can be his own commercials right now. The reason it worked for Michael is because he was alive and well and playing. You followed Michael’s career from the minute you were old enough to know who Michael was and you followed because you had an extraordinary human being athlete and you had great marketing and a great name, Air Jordan.”
From a marketing perspective, what would be the best scenario for the brands invested in NBA talent?
SV: “There’s one player to turn around, whether they play a best-of-three, best-of-five, best-of-seven or whatever [in the playoffs]. There’s one story that will save it: LeBron James and the Lakers winning the world championship. If LeBron does this, when he wins this number four and the Lakers win after being pathetic for 99 years, that’ll be the story. LeBron will have climbed Everest. That’s the story.”
If you were still working for a sneaker brand, what wold your first move be?
SV: “If I were employed by a shoe company, here’s what I would do. All the shoe companies now have right now one or more great All-Star players. I would blast my team and my future. I would I would tell my fan base and the rest of the NBA, ‘Look who I got. You missed them for a year. Don’t forget about them.’ I would do away with the selling the shoes thing, I would make my guy Bugs Bunny, I would make him a personality. I would just come out, spend whatever my budget is, and I would tell the people who we’ve got, not what we missed. I wouldn’t even bring it up.”