This summer there are a lot of brands and players who have no choice but to question their standings with their prospective sneaker brands. Commitment requires two people to have clear communication, transparency, and honesty. If you are a player with a particular brand, you need to question where you stand and how your image will be elevated, and on the flip side, you need to understand how you need to perform to keep the brand happy too. Brands are under more pressure than ever to show their overall commitment to players and they are seeing players leave when they aren’t happy. American brands are seeing their counterparts in Asia taking on multi-million dollar deals with top NBA athletes, they need to look at what they are doing and where they are falling behind. Athletes need to look at their partnerships too and really reflect on what their brand partnership brings to the table.
Looking at it from both sides, brands and players are looking for the right commitment level. For brands, there have been commitment issues over accolades and marketability. For players, there have been issues with receiving what they deserve, or feel like they deserve. I think players like Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic should have conversations for signature shoes. They are giving one to Zion Williamson, who has barely started his career, it would make sense to offer this commitment to Tatum and Doncic. When it comes to Steph and Under Armour, I think he needs to take control of those conversations regarding where the brand will take his image in the future. Under Armour has not proven themselves as a brand of choice. Curry has strong star appeal, so they need to show him they will be able to elevate his brand. For Embiid, he needs to look at the metrics to ensure his longevity with the brand, and understand what is required of him to make the partnership successful for both sides.
Brands are going to have to look at the performance of the NBA players and college teams they work with to decide if they want to move forward with those relationships. For example, Under Armour decided to terminate their contract with UCLA because they haven’t seen a return on their 15-year/$280M investment. UA has alleged they have, “not received marketing benefits for an extended time”. It was the largest athletic apparel deal in collegiate sports history and now UCLA is suing UA for breach of contract. Many have speculated that the truth of the UA termination is due to UCLA’s lack of performance in combination with the lack of exposure due to Covid-19. Covid-19 has sports brands tightening their belts in a number of different ways, inevitably they are going to be re-evaluating their commitments to the various college athletic departments they support. Already we’re seeing the reaction by some colleges like Navy and Boston College reaching out to UA to discuss the nature of their relationship before UA has the “talk” with them.
This reevaluation can happen towards athletes as well. If athletes are not performing up to the contractual standards, unable to go far in playoffs, or injury prone, they may not see that payoff that is to be expected from the partnership. I can see Under Armour sitting down and asking these big questions. For a player like Steph Curry, there aren’t really concerns. He has proven his worth multiple times, and he’s out this season for an injury. He’s also an investor in the company, so he has no worry about being dropped by the brand. Steph needs to turn the questions towards UA to understand what they are doing to ensure their business remains viable, especially when they use him as the face of their brand. UA has lost its foundation over the years, and they have building to do. It seems to be like UA is fine with doing the bare minimum when it comes to shoe design and recruitment when it comes to bringing more players on board with the brand.
When it comes to Joel Embiid, the situation is a bit murkier. He doesn’t have the push that Steph has yet. He is a bit more at the mercy of the brand, especially with the way the playoffs went this year. Joel Embiid is their new athlete, but seeing Philadelphia get swept in the first round means a lot less visibility for the brand and signature shoe. Joel needs to ask how to keep this relationship strong and make a plan for actions he can take to ensure growth in the brand going forward. Without visibility, the bottom line will take a hit, and ultimately this needs to be improved upon to make the partnership beneficial to both parties. Right now, there is no brand representation of note for UA in the bubble since Joel Embiid and Seth Curry have left. This is a huge issue for UA’s marketing.
Jimmy Butler was with Adidas originally after he got drafted but due him, “..never having problems with his feet” until wearing the brand, he chose to switch to Jordan Brand, even though this resulted in a reported 75% pay cut. He was with them ultimately for almost 6 years and ended up leaving the brand before his contract end date, and while it is unclear why, many speculate that it could have something to do with not being offered a signature shoe deal or more player exclusives. He clearly loves the brand, and he still rocks it even now in the playoffs, but he was unhappy with the brand in some way. I am not sure what he was looking for, maybe it was a lot, but I think that could have been an option for Under Armour if they hadn’t overextended themselves with other partnerships.
When Kawhi Leonard signed with Jordan Brand, the deal was for less than half a million. This was before Kawhi was really Kawhi. Jordan Brand later offered him a 4 year 20 million dollar deal with no signature shoe, which obviously didn’t sit well with Kawhi since he ultimately left the brand. He came with a ton of accolades, so he wanted more commitment from the brand. The issue for Jordan Brand was likely surrounding promotion and marketing efforts. Kawhi is known to be more subtle when it comes to public image, he doesn’t have social media accounts. This lack of public image would worry a brand because it can limit their marketability. That commitment wasn’t solid because of this reason, and why the deal didn’t work out.
The point of this article is not to criticize a specific brand, but instead to give examples of how brands will be forced to terminate business commitments if they feel there is a lack of return on investment. This goes for athletes and organizations too, they need to feel the same return on investment if they are going to be committed to a brand.