The NBA sneaker wars were pretty simple. It’s been Nike v. Adidas for a pretty long time. Under Armour was a relative newcomer to the competition when they landed Stephen Curry. That seemed like what the ecosystem would be for the foreseeable future. Nike has LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, and the entire Jordan brand under its belt. Adidas has James Harden, it’s street-wear collection, and a handful of other NBA stars. Under Armour has Steph Curry. That’s that. Except Puma came out of nowhere this past week to steal players who would normally fall into the Nike/Adidas/UA category.
If a company like Puma wants to enter the fray, they better come in with a plan. They better come in guns blazing. They better throw money around and land a bunch of players who aren’t in the league already — since most players already have shoe deals. Puma did just that:
Ayton, Bagley III, Porter Jr. and Smith are all set to be drafted tonight at the NBA Draft. They are all projected to go in the top-15. Ayton is projected to be the top pick. Bagley III is projected to go shortly thereafter and may end up going to Sacramento as the No. 2 pick. Porter Jr. has been projected anywhere between three and eight. The only person who won’t be in the top-10 is Smith — and he’s been rising up draft boards.
If you’re going to do it, this is the best way. Puma threw a ton of money at these prospects — Ayton even admitted he took the Puma deal because it was the most money — and now the company can build an entire activation around the draft. Puma can also build activation around the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, and have enough content to keep the company moving forward until the season starts. Puma had to heavily invest in this draft. There’s no reason to dip a toe in the water. Signing one prospect would have made waves, but signing four of the top 2018 prospects is a tsunami. If the only way to be successful is to be bold, Puma is bolder than any Tecate commercial ever created.
Puma didn’t stop at just signing players. They also signed Jay-Z to be their creative director — it was incorrectly reported that Jay-Z would be president of Puma’s basketball group, but that is not the case.
This is not testing things out. This is an outright onslaught to how the current shoe competition is structured. Puma has four rookies which spreads out their risk — one of them should end up a borderline All-Star — Jay-Z on board to recruit other players — don’t underestimate how big it is that Jay-Z is available to meet with players who grew up listening to his music — and Rudy Gay — fine, Rudy Gay isn’t that big of a deal.
It’s a risk, but Puma couldn’t have gone about this any other way. They want to enter a market with a dominant brand — Nike — a revitalized brand — Adidas — and a newcomer — Under Armour. Signing four players seems expensive, but it gives them multuple shots at a star. It creates brand momentum and awareness. Puma can now go out and sign some second level players who don’t have huge endorsement deals in place already. They can build from there. One player may have created some brand recognition, but multiple players makes a major mark in the news cycle.
Puma also basically stole some players from other brands already. NBA rookies tend to sign with the brand they’ve been wearing through their AAU circuit and college. Ayton was at Arizona and played on the AAU circuit with an Under Armour team. Marvin Bagley’s — Duke/Nike — dad had some reportedly shady dealings with Nike when it comes to his AAU team. Michael Porter Jr. went to Missouri, which is a Nike school. Zhaire Smith went to Texas Tech which is an Under Armour school. Companies have already invested in these players with the assumption they’d join their brand when they get to the NBA. Puma swooped in and took them away by giving them more cash and exposure.
This will be a business case study that will play out in real time. Either Puma made the correct decision by dropping a ton of money on these players — and Jay-Z — or they’ll flame out because they won’t have enough budget to move forward if Puma doesn’t move product. Let the games begin.