Eleven games into Michael Jordan’s illustrious career, he donned a pair of sneakers that changed the game forever. Originally featuring the Chicago Bulls’ black and red combination, the Jordan 1s have become one of the most iconic fashion staples and a reflection of the massive popularity boom the NBA experienced with Jordan at the helm.
The league fined Jordan $5,000 per game in an attempt to ban the shoes for violating uniform guidelines. Nike opted to call the bluff and paid all his fines, a decision that paid off in spades as he took the NBA by storm, winning Rookie of the Year and six NBA titles.
Nearly 40 years later, Michael Jordan’s deal with Air Jordan -- owned by Nike -- remains the most valuable shoe contract in sports year in and year out. It also revolutionized the expectations for players and brands partnering with one another.
Here’s a brief history of NBA shoe contracts and what fans can expect for the 2022 NBA Draft class as they enter the league:
What makes the NBA shoe contracts unique?
The NBA is a league of big bodies and bigger personalities.
While the NFL remains more popular across the U.S., the NBA has emerged as the hub of pop culture, often representing the latest fashion trends, attracting celebrities and establishing itself as a recognizable brand throughout the world.
“All brands look at the NBA as having touch points to culture, to music and to style. We’re seeing the tunnel entry become almost as important as what they’re wearing in the game,” said Nick DePaula, an NBA feature writer with ESPN. “I think brands are looking at deals more holistically than ever before.”
This increased visibility of players, in part due to the smaller rosters and close proximity of fans to the court that’s particularly unique to basketball, is every brand’s dream. Thus, the shoe deal.
Social media has also played a huge role in the accessibility and relatability of the league, according to sports agent Mark Bartelstein, founder of Priority Sports, whose clients include Bradley Beal and Kyle Lowry.
“I think social media has given fans of the game, the fans of the brands, a much stronger, a much more transparent opportunity to learn about the players, to learn their personalities, to learn things that make them tick,” Bartelstein said.
Paisley Benaza, a cultural communications strategist currently pursuing her Ph. D at Arizona State in Mass Media & Sports Marketing, spoke on the importance of effective negotiating on the part of agents.
Benaza said talking to sports agents taught her that “value or contribution or box score” have little bearing on the contract a player can land and that the true negotiating power and responsibility rest with the agent.
How have NBA endorsements and brand partnerships changed over time?
While most players still give it the old college try, the emergence of alternative options such as the G League Ignite and Overtime Elite and the addition of laws allowing collegiate players to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL) has changed the endorsement game. Well before they ever hear their names called in the draft, players are already on their way to establishing their personal brand and have expectations for their valuations.
“They’re very much making their decisions based on their own preferences,” Benaza said of how players determine which brands to sign with.
DePaula added that players continue to take a more active role in the creative process, even going so far as designing their own player logos, merchandise and taglines. He said this signals to potential brands that the player is actively engaged as opposed to “someone that will wear our shoes, but might not put a lot into it.”
Don’t be fooled, however. Loyalty still runs deep.
Before the NBA draft is even underway, players have already identified favorite brands dating back to their high school and college days.
DePaula went on to say that he anticipates the addition of NIL deals and existing relationships with agents will help expedite the process and some deals could land before the draft on June 23.
Changes aren’t exclusive to the player experience. Brands, including the NBA, continue to expand beyond the U.S., and the shoe business is no exception. Chinese brands have particularly made their mark, landing sponsorships with Klay Thompson, Rajon Rondo and Andrew Wiggins.
What kind of shoe contracts are available to NBA players?
There are three types of contracts available in the shoe world – signature, cash and merch deals.
Signature deals, reserved for the 20 or so most marketable players in the league, typically hit well into the multi-million dollar threshold, including royalties. It’s not only important to a player’s brand, but it’s also an opportunity for them to take an active role in designing the shoe that is then released around the world.
Landing a signature deal is especially rare for rookies. These are typically players who are anointed certified stars well before they make their NBA debut – think Zion Williamson, John Wall and LeBron James, to name a few.
“These days, especially, brands are still holding out and want to see a player that can prove themselves out first before they give them a signature shoe,” DePaula said.
The most popular option – a cash deal – typically comes with packages ranging from $50,000 to $2 million, according to DePaula, but does not include a signature shoe deal. Rather, players agree to exclusivity with a brand that provides all their shoes. This option also often includes bonus incentives, such as making an All-Star game.
Finally, the merch deal, typically reserved for players at the end of the bench and younger players, is primarily just an agreement for free shoes in exchange for visibility on the court.
What are some of the notable shoe deals from the 2021-22 NBA season?
How do brands convince NBA players to partner with them?
It’s a two-way street, with players and brands making the case for why they’re the right partnership fit.
While brands typically hold off on handing out multi-million-dollar contracts, the cash deals are still plenty risky and are just another gamble on the crop of players entering the league.
“This is a feeling out process on both sides I would say, with players testing out stuff from sometimes five, sometimes as many as seven or eight brands at once,” DePaula said.
According to DePaula, brands typically have anywhere from a $6 million to $15 million budget per draft. They’ll try to land a number of picks, knowing that “maybe three of those five lottery picks they try to sign aren’t going to pan out.”
The sales pitch is another production.
Brands often put weeks and months of strategizing and preparation into a pitch lasting at most a couple of hours.
Adidas is known for renting out elaborate mansions, complete with a private chef, entertainment space and countless items personalized to the player and their support system.
Meanwhile, according to DePaula, Nike rolled out the red carpet for Williamson, providing 365 pairs of shoes – one for each day – that included nods to his family members.
Even the vast majority of players who don’t land signature contracts in their rookie season are often on the receiving end of pitches from countless brands.
“I spent my kind of pre-draft process last year in Chicago, and companies from all over the globe are sending in shoes to a variety of the guys that were in my rookie class,” Kispert said. “We wear shoes for a few days from different brands, try them out and see if we liked them and kind of just basically give them ratings.”
Kispert went on to say that determining which brand to sign with is often a collaborative process.
“We talk to each other, we bounce ideas off of each other,” he said. “It was kind of a peer-reviewed process, if you will.”
The Gonzaga product eventually signed with Nike, the brand he’d played in since high school. The sports equipment giant has carved a particularly dominant name for itself in the basketball world, making up over two-thirds of shoes worn in the NBA.
What significance does a shoe contract have on an NBA player’s career?
A shoe deal could mean vastly different things to a player entering the league and a well-established veteran.
Every NBA draft is littered with busts who either didn’t pan out in the league or battled injuries that lowered their earning potential and shortened their career. Endorsements are a means for players to accumulate earnings early in their careers in the event of a shortened or disappointing career.
“Some of these shoe deals are signing anywhere from $1 to $2 million a year, and if they don’t pan out that’s money they might never see again in their career,” DePaula said. “For a lot of players, it’ll be the biggest deal they signed potentially in their career off the floor.”
Despite what Jerry Maguire would have you believe, it’s not always just about the money. For younger players, Benaza said it can serve as validation that a player “made it.” Meanwhile, a well-run partnership can translate to attention on the court.
According to DePaula, it was rumored that Wiggins, who is sponsored by Chinese shoe company PEAK, earned inaugural NBA All-Star honors this past season -- despite coming off the bench for the Golden State Warriors -- behind an influx of international votes.
While players early in their careers go for the biggest contract available, they can still find ways to ensure that a partnership reflects their values and personal brand.
“You can make a really good living off of having a good personal brand,” Kispert said. “And you’ll see, you know, you can see companies really start to align with people who attract a lot of followers and are dynamic on social media.”
Who are the favorites to land shoe contracts in the 2022 NBA Draft class?
The 2022 NBA Draft class is shaping up to be plenty strong, but that might not immediately translate to the sneaker world. At the top of the draft, four players remain in the mix to end up in Orlando with the No. 1 overall pick. Without a clear front runner, companies are less likely to hedge their bets with a signature deal.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost for the future stars to land a solid deal.
DePaula is particularly optimistic about Jaden Ivey’s odds of navigating the negotiations. Ivey posted a strong freshmen campaign at Purdue before opting to return for another year. His breakout season saw him emerge as a nearly sure-fire top-five pick.
Meanwhile, Bartelstein is confident in Iowa’s Keegan Murray, similarly returned for his sophomore year and is rising in the draft boards as a high lottery pick.
Milwaukee’s Patrick Baldwin Jr., Arizona’s Benedict Mathurin and Kentucky duo Shaedon Sharp and TyTy Washington were all names floated as potential targets for big shoe contracts upon entering the league.
Bartelstein said the most important thing is that the player likes playing in the shoes.
“It’s hard to play well if you don’t feel great about what you want on your feet,” he said.
Kispert said it best:
“Look good, feel good, play good.”