By Jonah Engel Bromwich and Kevin Draper, The New York Times
Before last summer, every top N.B.A. draft pick of this decade had signed a sneaker endorsement contract with Nike or Adidas. DeAndre Ayton, this year’s No. 1 pick, did not.
“We were dealing with Nike people, Under Armour and all the other shoe companies,” he said soon afterward. “We just thought Puma was the right fit.”
Marvin Bagley III, the second pick, went with Puma, too. He said in an email that he chose the company because “they’re willing to do things differently, which is what I like about them.”
If Puma started the 2018 insurgency against the traditional shoe powers, New Balance joined the rebellion last month. Multiple news outlets reported the company had landed a deal with Kawhi Leonard after he turned down a multiyear contract worth $22 million from Nike. In October, New Balance revealed it had signed the much-hyped prospect Darius Bazley to a million-dollar contract. Bazley, 18, is not yet in the N.B.A. He is interning with the company and training for the draft instead of playing a “one and done” year in college.
Not to be outdone, Under Armour added Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers’ charismatic young center, to its roster days before the season began, beating out competition from Puma and New Balance. He joined Stephen Curry and Dennis Smith Jr. on the Under Armour payroll.
The rush of upstart brands signing N.B.A. players is a testament to the league’s ever-expanding popularity; even being tangentially associated with the league gives the brands some credibility with young consumers, they insist. Which is a good thing, given that experts say the shoes themselves may tank.
“The headline for us when it comes down to why are we getting back into basketball after 20 years is culture culture culture culture culture,” said Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director for brand and marketing. “The N.B.A. and all the other entertainment mechanisms around it, whether it’s ESPN or Complex magazine, are attuned to creating a 24-hour news cycle around basketball. In our day of mass news media mass consumption, we have the option to benefit from that.”
Mark Bartelstein, a top N.B.A. agent whose client Gordon Hayward recently signed with the Chinese shoe company Anta, said the companies were battling for a piece of the basketball business because “the money follows what is hot, and the N.B.A. is very hot.”
Executives at Puma and New Balance, eager to justify major investments, were quick to agree, pointing to the outsize influence of a league with a global footprint that extends beyond sports. They say that it has never been more important to be associated with the N.B.A.
As Bagley put it, Puma’s “culture is not strictly basketball — it’s a full lifestyle brand that not only supports me as a basketball player, but also as an artist.”
And yet Puma may be making this bet at precisely the wrong time, as the market for basketball shoes is bottoming out.
According to Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group, basketball shoes now account for just 4 percent of the shoe market, down from a high of 13 percent a few years ago. Performance sneakers — shoes worn for athletic activity — are doing poorly more generally.
Consumers, Powell said, are now more interested in looking like athletes than they are in imitating their abilities.