In December 1996, I was given the choice of Jordan twelves or a birthday party. I chose Jordan twelves and that is something that has stuck with me for almost 20 years now. The idea that I chose a pair of shoes over a party at age 7 shows where my priorities lie. Not much has changed since then; I guess you could say I was a little bit of a baby sneakerhead.
The Last Dance, currently airing on ESPN, has given many of us the opportunity to relive amazing moments, and to others, experience it for the first time. For those who are too young, this is a chance to experience a world we only read about and watched on television. For many people who were born in Chicago and were of a certain age to get a glimpse of the man whose shoes we proudly wore while in middle school, now have the chance to have a deeper understanding of his greatness and contributions not only to basketball, but to the city of Chicago and the culture as a whole.
Culture is defined as the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. In this documentary, we’re given a rare opportunity to really experience what the culture of the late 80s and 90s was about. Looking at the clothing, the music, and obviously looking at the basketball shoes in particular, it’s hard to ignore the Air Jordans and Michael Air Jeffrey Jordan’s incredible contribution to the culture.
The Last Dance also gives us an opportunity to reflect and see what culture really means in our society and what kind of longevity cultural icons have. Looking at Twitter and Instagram you can see people discussing the shoes that they wore, the shoes that MJ’s wearing, the history behind the shoes, as well as his opponent’s shoes. It’s entertaining to discuss what shoes were worn; “Can you believe that they used to rock those shoes with no ankle support?”. How do they compare to our current shoes? Or hell, even sneaker resellers who are latching onto the moment and trying to sell retro shoes. The documentary features MJ rocking the Jordan fives and sure enough sneaker resellers like GOAT and StockX have Jordan fives for sale with people all over Instagram and Twitter excited to buy them, rock them, and enjoy them. People are wearing their best Jordan gear, rocking their best Jordan shoes, and taking pictures of themselves enjoying this phenomenal documentary.
I say all this because when it comes to sneaker culture, the impact an athlete has can usually be measured by how many years they are with the brand and how many signature shoes they have. As of now, there are only 5 NBA athletes with 10 or more signature issues with the same brand. Also taken into consideration is the success of the shoe itself, like how many people actually wore them, how often they are seen on the streets, on the courts, on social media, how they look, how much people talk about them, and quite frankly how the athlete performed while wearing the shoes. You can argue that Iverson has had an incredible impact on the NBA by his personal style and attitude, but his shoes have not carried the same impact that his personality and play did. The same with Shaq and unfortunately many other athletes who have gone through the NBA and NFL, several of them pro bowlers, All-Stars, and sometimes even Hall of Famers. While they have had great achievements, their impact in sneaker culture has not held the same weight.
As this past decade came to a close, what you see are a lot of sneaker free agents beginning to chart their own path and take their future into their own hands. Players like Kawhi Leonard going with New Balance, Klay Thompson taking his business to China, Jimmy Butler (this year) leaving Jordan Brand early, to name a few. This makes it harder for the brands like Nike and Adidas to just do what they want. The brands no longer dictate the athlete’s worth, and in some cases brands need to prove to the athlete that they are the best company to work with. This really emphasizes the partnership that is made. On one hand, the brands need to evaluate how they are going to represent their players, culture, and lifestyle in order to achieve that long-term cultural significance, and on the other hand, athletes need to find a brand that understands them and speaks to them on a personal and even cultural level so their image can be elevated through the brand’s image. Working together to achieve identity that will transcend time and secure a place in sneaker culture not only for this generation, but for future generations too.
As an example, Under Armour right now has to question what is their brand and what is their marketing strategy moving forward. What do they want people saying about them and what do they want people saying about them 20 years from now when there’s a documentary about the Golden State Warriors, then a documentary about Steph Curry? No doubt there will be stories and documentaries about the impact that he’s had on the League. Very few athletes have been able to make such a stamp in a particular sport like he has and as his star has risen, and is possibly plateauing, he’s on his 7 second issue coming up to his eight likely being released this fall. With his contract ending in 2024 and Under Armour being at such a precarious place in society both financially and culturally, one has to question if UA has really evaluated what they want their impact to be. Do they want to be another side note like Reebok has been, potentially a brand that had great athletes, a premier generational athlete champion MVP, but unable to utilize him to generate sales? Are they looking to become a rival to the Adidas and Nikes of the world, or are they fine with letting an opportunity slip away? If they’re not, what are they planning on doing to try to change that narrative to make sure that they’re just not another blip on the radar, that they can have a prolonged and indelible impact.
I’ve written ad nauseum before about what I think they should do. I think paying attention to the culture is important for them to continue. Focus heavily on Curry and his family and I think quite frankly, considering their location, reach out to Bradley Beal who’s another All-Star alum. Considering he’s in DC and his impact in the DC area and community, I think he would be another great athlete for them to reach out to for a potential signature shoe. Invest the time for 5, 7, or 10 years and have him be another person you see wearing UA brand shoes and gear within his communities to create a long-standing legacy and influence the buying power of future generations. This work now can put UA on the track to be competitive with Adidas or Nike. Further, UA has a rare opportunity with NBA Africa and Joel Embiid being possibly the current largest profile African-born NBA player in the league. Utilize his personality and legacy to grow a market there and broaden the brand’s exposure to untapped international markets. If done right, this could leave a lasting legacy for Embiid as well as UA.
Nike’s impact in the sneaker culture need not be said. If you go in the street right now you’ll see Nike all over the place. Nike athletes are wearing the shoes both in college basketball and in professional NBA, as well as overseas. You know their impact has been incredible and has left a lasting mark. LeBron is a generational athlete that in 20 – 30 years you’ll still see his shoes being sold, you’ll still see the impact that his shoes have had, and he will still be a top five player of all time. I believe that Kevin Durant will have the same sort of impact in terms of shoes, and quite frankly, Kyrie Irving just due to his personality. Nike culturally is in such a great space that all I can say to them is keep doing what you’re doing. The concern is with the Jordan brand. It can be easy to rely on the name and the weight Jordan carries, but if they aren’t careful they could miss opportunities with their younger athletes like Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson. Have their branded gear sooner rather than later. Russell Westbrook is on his third signature shoe and yet his 11th year in the league, whereas some of his contemporaries are on their 4th, 5th, 6th, even 7th shoe. To avoid this missed opportunity in the future, I think it’s important for Jordan brand along with Nike to really make a strong decision and investment in the Luka Dončić, Zion Williamson, and the Jayson Tatum’s of the world. Focus on this young talent because they would be great brand ambassadors.
Legacy is obviously important in the cultural zeitgeist, especially in the sports world. We judge an athletes’ success on what legacy they have left behind. This is why partnerships are so important for both brands and athletes. The Last Dance documentary shows the long-standing legacy an athlete and their signature shoes can have on the culture and the lasting impact it can leave post-retirement. If brands want this level of success, they need to focus on the future. Don’t go for throw away partnerships, think of each partnership as a legacy-building opportunity. If you sign a contract with an athlete for 5 years and only think of it as a 5 year relationship, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Take these relationships seriously, build them up, foster them, nurture them, take them to the next level. Show these athletes you’re invested, and in return, you’ll have the best athletes looking to build their careers with you, ultimately building your brand legacy for today and into the future.