New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson has signed a multiyear shoe deal with Nike (NKE)–owned Jordan brand. And Nike may have just secured its status as the top brand in the NBA for another generation.
ESPN'S Adrian Wojnarowski reports that deal is set for five years and is the richest rookie shoe deal in NBA history on an annual basis. That is no small feat. Yearly Zion's deal is more lucrative than the $90 million rookie deal LeBron James got from the swoosh brand back in 2003.
Typically, the sneaker a player chooses to endorse isn’t met with much fanfare. But in this case, it’s different. Last February, the then–Duke University star's left Nike PG 2.5 sneaker exploded during a nationally televised game against the University of North Carolina.
After "Shoegate," the questions began — which company would Zion sign with? Before the incident, Nike seemed like a foregone conclusion. After all, the swoosh brand is the official uniform supplier of Duke, and Williamson was already comfortable playing in them.
But having your shoe explode on national TV is enough to make anyone explore his options. Some experts thought Williamson would go with the brand that paid him the most — even if that ended up being a little-known Chinese brand like Li-Ning, Peak, or Anta.
With the Jordan brand owned by Nike, Nike ended up getting its man anyway — and it’s a big win for Nike.
John Kernan, managing director of retail and consumer brands at Cowen Equity Research, thinks Williamson made the right move."He made a wise decision. Nike can take his brand to the next level!”
Williamson seems up to the challenge of playing in the same brand of shoes worn by arguably the greatest NBA player ever.
“Since I was a kid, I dreamed of making it to the league and having the type of impact on the game Michael Jordan had and continues to have today. He was one of those special athletes I looked up to, and I really can't express how happy and excited I am for this journey," Williamson said.
ESPN's Nick DePaula tweeted statements from Michael Jordan himself on Zion signing to his namesake brand:
"Zion's incredible determination, character, and play are inspiring. He's an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future. He told us he would 'shock the world' and asked us to believe him. We do."
Moving the needle?
Some analysts, however, aren’t sure even a star like Williamson can revive interest in basketball shoes. "With basketball shoes out of fashion, I do not expect a major commercial impact here. I doubt if he will earn out his contract based on merchandise sales," Matt Powell, NPD Group vice president and senior industry advisor, told Yahoo Finance.
Performance basketball shoe Q1 sales are down 20% in the U.S., which is part of a continuing trend of basketball models selling less. However, basketball sneakers still are a huge moneymaker for Nike.
Nike said during its Q4 earnings call in June that the Jordan brand grew 12%. However, most of the sales of Jordan brand shows were retro styles worn by the man himself. Other Jordan brand athletes, such as Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony do not move the needle as much by comparison. Jordan is a one-person brand — and that man is … Jordan.
In Williamson, Nike may be able to reset the Jordan brand with what could be a once-in-a-generation talent.
Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.