Written by Matt Welty (@matthewjwelty)
All athletes say that winning a championship is the highest peak that they strive to reach during their careers. But there's something—or at least used to be something—that might mean more to them than hoisting and kissing a championship trophy at the end of the season: Getting immortalized with a signature sneaker.
There was a time in professional sports, the NBA in particular, where only a select few players were given their own signature sneaker model. And this was gained through their hard work, dominance on the court, and, ultimately, their marketable personalities. In the early days, only players with flair, such as Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J had their own sneakers that were meant to be an extension of their on-and off-court personae. And their respective Puma, adidas and Converse sneakers have held up to this day, receiving proper retros and exciting sneaker enthusiasts whether they grow up in their era or not.
In the early days, only players with flair, such as Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J had their own sneakers that were meant to be an extension of their on-and off-court personae.
Then, in 1984, the concept of the signature sneaker was completely tilted on its head. Nike signed a rookie from North Carolina, Michael Jordan, and explored and executed the idea of a signature series. "Air Jordan" exploded out of the gate and went on to represent what a signature sneaker would look like moving forward. Kids wanted to "Be Like Mike," not just because he was on his way to winning six NBA championships (although that would eventually be part of it) but because of the connection they felt to Mike's personal brand through his signature sneakers.
Jordan paved the way for a whole new generation of NBA players who were able to further their legend through sneakers with their names on them. Patrick Ewing was able to leave adidas and start an eponymous sneaker brand, Charles Barkley told the public he wasn't a role model as he snatched rebounds in his CB-series sneakers, Reebok had a winner in its line for Shaq and subsequent sneakers for Allen Iverson and Shawn Kemp. Penny Hardaway was able to debut new technology for Nike (the Foamposite), and even Jordan's sidekick, Scottie Pippen, built his own sneaker legacy.
But in the early 2000s, when the previous generation of stars had started to diminish or retired, brands searched (often in vain) for the replacements to perennial All-Stars and NBA champions. Vince Carter was given Shox, Paul Pierce only had his sneakers released in kid's sizes, and Dada put out sneakers for Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell. But Carter might be better known for wearing a sneaker he didn't even properly endorse, the And1 Tai Chi, while Sprewell's Dadas are best not remembered at all.
It led to an awkward time for signature sneakers.
It led to an awkward time for signature sneakers. Jordan had retired, Kobe Bryant had skipped out on adidas, and LeBron James, the pre-determined savior, had just made his way into the league. Signature sneakers were no longer about giving models to guys who would move the hearts of the upcoming generation, they became a slot to fill for these brands—and they were striking out.
Adidas had its share of signature athletes: Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. Tracy McGrady was given six different signature sneakers. And he deserved them: He'd won back-to-back scoring championships. But adidas took away his signature sneaker, and gave him, Duncan, Garnett, and Chauncey Billups "PE" sneakers instead of signature models. Adidas formed a "Brotherhood," and took the importance off of each player having their own specifically designed sneaker.
LeBron, Kobe, and Kevin Durant are the pinnacle of NBA signature athletes now, but is the old model still working? Kobe is injured, LeBron is, on occasion, wearing his LeBron XIs, and people are more concerned with what Durant is wearing off- rather than on-court. There's more anticipation of what PEs Ray Allen, a player who is on Team Jordan but has never had a signature sneaker, will break out on Christmas Day than of what Durant will wear during the All-Star Game.
There's more anticipation of what PEs Ray Allen, a player who is on Team Jordan but has never had a signature sneaker, will break out on Christmas Day than of what Durant will wear during the All-Star Game.
There's enormous hype behind the plethora of LeBron, Kobe, and Durant sneakers, to be sure. But LeBron wearing the "Oregon" Air Jordan Vs piqued just as much interest as whether he'd actually wear his own sneakers. But they're still selling. And although Kobe Bryant has one of the most interesting signature sneakers in what feels like forever, he didn't even get to debut the sneaker on-court due to an injury. And Derrick Rose hasn't played a complete season since 2011-12, yet his signature adidas continue to get released according to their predetermined schedule.
These athletes, in turn, have become more about what they do for their respective brands rather than just selling their own sneakers off the shelves. "Athletes are not earning out their big contracts by selling shoes," says Matt Powell, a sneakers sales numbers guru from SportsSourceOne. "It took LeBron six years to break even on his contract via shoe sales. Durant has yet to offset his endorsement costs, and Rose never will."
The real question is, does it matter? These athletes have become the faces for advertisements and signage that's placed inside of the local sneaker stores. Even if a kid doesn't leave with a pair of KD VIs, and buys a pair of Prestiges instead, they still feel like they're KD-approved. And at this point, Nike would rather give takedown and lifestyle sneakers to its big three than give a second-tier, upcoming player like Kyrie Irving one. A top-tier player's influence is more important than their actual sneakers. Dwyane Wade's Li-Ningsignature sneaker isn't even, except for a few doors, sold in America.
A top-tier player's influence is more important than their actual sneakers.
In the end, it doesn't matter if LeBron or Rose are wearing their sneakers from Nike or adidas, as long as they're wearing sneakers by Nike or adidas. And, hopefully, they'll grow the brands. Even if the interest wanes in their on-court sneakers.
Even if the companies aren't making chunks of change off selling a sneaker with an athlete's name attached, there's a reason that they continue to produce signature sneakers. Nike and adidas didn't get to where they are in the sneaker world by making poor financial decisions. As long as basketball players have some sort of cache that society as a whole wants to tap into, there's going to be sneakers made for the next guy who promises to be the future Jordan, or something close enough to make us latch onto him.