Every twist and turn in the Zion sneaker chase
A year after Puma landed 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton for the company’s reentry into the basketball sneaker market, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft walked into. The arena for his first NBA game wearing a white and red blast pair of the Puma RS-X Reinvention. Every twist and turn in the Zion sneaker chase
And while he hit the court that night wearing a pair of Nike Kyrie 4s from his Duke days, he spent the rest of summer league alternating between sneakers from Puma and Jordan Brand as he sat and watched his New Orleans Pelicansteammates from the sidelines. Those two companies had emerged as the front-runners in the Zion sweepstakes, a bidding war that saw some competitors offer deals that could’ve paid the young superstar nearly $20 million per year.
In the end, Michael Jordan got his man. Every twist and turn in the Zion sneaker chase…
“Zion’s incredible determination, character and play are inspiring,” Michael Jordan said in a news release announcing the deal. “He’s an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future.”
But the path to putting the most famous North Carolina alum’s logo on the feet of the former Duke star wasn’t nearly as simple as a 10-mile drive down Tobacco Road.
SONNY VACCARO HAD
The legendary sports marketing pioneer, who famously pushed Nike to sign Jordan 35 years ago. Was serving as an adviser to Williamson and Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepfather. From the beginning of the process, Vaccaro tried to create a sense of urgency around the May 14 draft lottery. Every twist and turn in the Zion sneaker chase…
“My conversation with the family was that I see dead spots [marketwise] in this draft,” he said. “My speech was that, ‘We’re going to do this early. It’s going to be done before you go there.'”
Unfortunately, by the time Williamson officially declared for the draft on April 15. The timeline to get a deal done had already gone awry.
Anderson had played college basketball at Clemson in the late 1970s alongside James “Chubby” Wells. Who went on to find success as an NBA agent in the mid-2000s. Representing role players around the league like Dale Davis and Ramon Sessions. After his own 12-year career playing professional basketball overseas.
The family’s plan was to have Wells and Anderson form a new sports agency. Centered on the generational talent and appeal of Williamson once he turned pro. Before that could happen, Wells needed to become recertified with the National Basketball Players Association. After his prior player representation approval window had lapsed.
The agent certification test administered by the NBPA. A mandate for all agents looking to represent players in negotiations with teams. The 50-question multiple-choice test can only be taken once per calendar year. Meaning Wells is unable to retest again until January 2020.
With Wells unable to serve as Williamson’s official representative. The family turned to a different option, hiring longtime marketing agent Gina Ford. Her newly formed Prime Sports agency for representation in marketing deals. Still, the setback made the likelihood of finalizing such a complex deal in advance of the lottery highly unlikely.
In 2003, when LeBron James hit the sneaker market after declaring for the NBA, then-agent Aaron Goodwin was adamant that he sign his shoe deal before the draft lottery, minimizing the importance of where he’d land in a year when smaller markets Cleveland, Denver and Toronto had the best chance of landing the top overall pick. He ended up landing a seven-year, $87 million deal with Nike that was announced the day of the lottery, before the Cavaliers landed the top pick.
Williamson entered the NBA with as high a profile as any draft pick since James. He simultaneously built equity with fans through a glowing personality and a nonstop series of highlight dunks that exploded almost nightly on Instagram. By the time he turned pro, Williamson had 2.9 million followers on Instagram, a total higher than more than half of the players in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game.
WHEN PUMA REENTERED
The NBA scene a year ago, the company did so with a mix of promising rookies and expressive veterans, with DeMarcus Cousins as the company’s highest-profile established player. But behind the scenes, the company was prioritizing a yearlong plan to pitch Zion Williamson, who had yet to play a college basketball game. Puma knew the kind of instant impact, visibility and awareness that adding him would’ve brought to the company.
But the company knew that a strong social media presence and flashy on-court sneakers wouldn’t be enough to land Williamson.
BEFORE BEING HIRED
by Zion Williamson and his family, Gina Ford had been most known in marketing circles. For her work over the past decade with another generational athlete: track and field icon Usain Bolt. The nine-time gold medalist has built a business portfolio highlighted by as many as 16 endorsement deals with several massive global brands. However, it was his partnership with Puma, a deal he’s had in place since 2003 that at its peak paid him $10 million per year, that was most intriguing to industry insiders who saw Ford’s partnership with Williamson as the pathway to a massive offer from the brand.
After signing on to represent Williamson, Ford quickly worked to put together meetings not only with sneaker companies but with global companies such as 2K Sports, Beats by Dre, Mercedes-Benz and Powerade.
By early May, though, the sneaker deal negotiations simply weren’t progressing. While the family knew the switch from Wells to Ford’s Prime Sports group would create a delay on the preferred timeline Vaccaro had laid out for them, they were still hopeful they’d get a deal done before Williamson’s NBA destination was known.