Monumental. Huge. Bigger than gargantuan.
Those were the words several sneaker industry experts and Black culture critics used to describe the value and scope of the very idea that Reebok could come under Black ownership.
The brand, one of the largest athletic footwear and apparel labels in the world, was put on the selling block by parent company Adidas last month following several years of uneven performance as it struggled to maintain relevance amid shifting trends.
Now, a “for sale” sign atop the Boston-based brand has spurred the interest of several high-profile Black businessmen: Most notably hip-hop mogul Master P and former NBA player Baron Davis. Master P has also signaled in a recent interview his interest in bringing former NBA super-star Shaquille O’Neal into the partnership.
On its face, such a deal makes sense. Reebok has a storied history with the Black community: From its years-long partnerships with Black powerhouse basketball players like O’Neal and Allen Iverson to its reputation in the ‘90s and early-aughts as a staple among hip-hop tastemakers, including Jay-Z.
Like many wildly successful athletic (and fashion) brands, Reebok’s success — even if, at times, fleeting — is due in no small part to Black consumers.
As Jemayne Lavar King, author of “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture” and professor at Johnson C. Smith University put it: “Everything is vetted within the Black community. If it’s cool here, it’s cool everywhere else.”
Still, a deal that brings the brand home is hardly a cure-all on either side of the equation. For Black people in America, it does not erase years of oppression or the ongoing, persistent weight of systemic racism — even if it helps to chip away at such things. For Reebok, placing it in the hands of Black owners does not on its own carry the power to correct years of business missteps.
According to Crystal deGregory, historian and research fellow at the MTSU Center for the Preservation, such a transaction could even perpetuate longstanding challenges for Black people seeking to advance in America.
“We should be cautious of our expectations of Blackness in business to be able to accomplish things whiteness in business has not been able to,” deGregory explained. “Often, we tend to expect more of Black brands than we do of white ones … No matter how rich, in this instance, these two very accomplished self-made men [Master P and Baron Davis] are, they are self-made; this is first-generation wealth. We should, probably, first and foremost commend them for even wanting to take such a gamble.”
Some market estimates put price tag for Reebok at $2.4 billion. And while experts, including Matt Powell, senior industry advisor at The NPD Group, view that rate as ambitious, Reebok is hardly a fledgling brand. In fact, some might argue it was recently beginning to see its turnaround efforts take hold. The label, which saw third-quarter sales dip 7% mostly stemming from COVID-19 induced setbacks, returned to growth in 2019, with currency-neutral revenues up 2% to $1.7 billion.
What’s more, the most current NPD data showed Reebok — which has managed to generate new hype via buzzy collabs with stars like Cardi B — bucking industry trends. In November, it logged a sales gain of 20% compared with the overall athletic industry’s decline of 11%.
Whether the brand will continue on an upward trajectory, remains to be seen. But, suffice it to say: A lot is riding on its new owner.
“Reebok has a tremendous, tremendous volt of retro product. This is brand that, if properly managed and executed, could make a comeback,” explained Powell. “If you have Black ownership coupled with the right product, it’s a winning formula.”
However, Powell cautioned, “If the product isn’t right, Black ownership is not enough.”
In a similar vein, deGregory noted that Black ownership alone does not secure a connection to the Black community: “We have seen this [repeatedly]: You can have a brand that isn’t owned by Black people — and doesn’t even care about them — but connects with Black people because it does whatever is supposedly required to be successful. You can have a brand owned by Black people that does not make that connection.”
She added, “it’s not just about Black ownership, it’s about Black administration, investments, endorsements and so on.”
Jazerai Allen-Lord, a sneaker strategist, Reebok collaborator and founder of agency True to Size, said Black consumers as well as people of color working in the shoe industry likely share a certain level of excitement and “intrigue” in hearing of an “official conversation about Black ownership of one of the ‘big five’ sneaker brands.”
“We’ve been begging for this for years,” she said.
But, like deGregory, she noted that there are far more complicated questions to be answered beyond the headline of Black ownership.
“When I look at Reebok and the heritage of the brand as well as where it fits in the [current] climate, it has always been disruptive, unexpected and a riskier, in-your-face kind of brand — those things [align] with Black culture in that it is inherently risky to be Black,” she said. “So, is Reebok the right sneaker brand to be Black-owned? Yes. Whether Master P and Baron Davis are the right Black owners [is another question].”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Powell who pointed to a lack of significant experience in the mechanics of the shoe industry for Davis, O’Neal and Master P: “Shaquille has had shoes made under his name, but all three men — although they’re admirable and have shown proven success in business — are going to need some help from people who’ve really worked in the shoe industry.” (Master P has a shoe line, Moneyetti, although its sales metrics are not readily available.)
Both Allen-Lord and King expressed concerns over Master P in particular, whose hip-hop heyday was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, making his relevance among Gen Z and younger millennial consumers minimal at best.
“As a Black woman in business, I’m excited about the potential of Master P [owning Reebok] because I see what he’s done with distribution and ownership and business models for Black business,” said Allen-Lord. “However, his brand reads to Gen Z as a corny, ‘corner store,’ urban and very Fubu. That’s where the concern about product comes in. The consumer, in general, is already iffy on Reebok and when we add Master P, things can go very left.”
If Reebok does end up in the hands of Master P and Davis, Allen-Lord suggests the brand focuses on categories like basketball, an area where she says the label hasn’t been able to gain traction under its parent firm Adidas. Allen-Lord said she sees Master P and Davis as having a propensity to lure more NBA stars to the label’s endorsement roster. (Davis spent 13 years in the NBA, during which his accomplishments are well-documented, while Master P had two pre-season stints with the Charlotte Hornets and the Toronto Raptors.)
Meanwhile, King suggested the brand’s new owners open up its focus on retro product — a facet of Reebok’s business he said was “strangled” under its current parent firm — as well as double down on its connection with Black women consumers. (The brand has notably collaborated with Black women entertainers and sneaker influencers like Cardi B, Teyana Taylor and Allen-Lord among others.)
“If they would give Black women and women of color more power, that would go a long way because, Black women control the household,” King said. “The minute someone puts a Black woman in power for the first time ever, what we see nationwide and globally is it moves the needle. Black women [in leadership for Reebok] would go far.”
A decision on Reebok is expected to be announced on March 10 when Adidas will present its new five-year strategy. Other potential suitors include New York-based Authentic Brands Group, parent to Nautica and Juicy Couture, and Permira, which already owns Dr. Martens and Golden Goose. (ABG is also a longtime business partner of O’Neal.)
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that Reebok logged a sales gain of 11% compared with the overall athletic industry’s decline of 20%. Reebok logged a sales gain of 20% compared with the overall athletic industry’s decline of 11%.