On Wednesday, news broke that Kawhi Leonard reportedly inked a multi-year shoe deal with New Balance. The head-scratching move raised a ton of questions. Why would Leonard leave Jordan Brand for a company who doesn’t even have a shoe for him to wear right now? Why would New Balance drop a bag on player who has exhibited nearly zero personality since entering the league in 2011? As odd as the pairing may seem, it has good potential for both parties if they play to their strengths.
Leonard went from most loved to most hated after sitting out most of the 2017-18 campaign with the San Antonio Spurs, but his first season with the Toronto Raptors has been a return to form for the former Finals MVP. The 27-year-old forward is the best player on the team with the best record in the league, and he’s still one of, if not the best, two-way players in the game. Leonard’s been a perennial contender for NBA MVP the past several seasons and he’ll be in the discussion this year if he continues his stellar play. He’ll also be the talk of NBA Twitter through next summer if he decides to test free agency as expected. The accolades and attention bring the visibility shoe companies covet.
New Balance is gaining market share after years of trailing behind bigger competitors. The Boston-based company netted $4.5 billion in sales in 2017, up from $1.5 billion in 2008. Baseball has been one of its key areas for growth. But, it only came after New Balance decided to stop spreading itself thin by trying to cover multiple sports, choosing instead to focus on one. Now with a foothold on the baseball diamond, they’ll likely try to replicate that success in basketball.
Gaining ground on the hardwood won’t come easy. Nike and Adidas have owned the basketball category for years with others left fighting for scraps of market share. New Balance joins Puma, another company making a strong push in their return to basketball, to wrestle away the third slot from Under Armour. New Balance is a self-described “challenger brand” undeterred by the size of competitors. For basketball endorsements, the company is starting small, opting for quality over quantity. "We'll never have 100 basketball players. We've been on the hunt for guys who are outliers,” said Pat Cassidy, the company's director of global consumer marketing. “We want guys who are doing things a different way. We want guys that can make their own paths."
To that end, New Balance has only worked with a small number of NBA players over the years. Their most recognized endorser was Lakers great James Worthy, who had his own signature model in the late 1980s. That ended unceremoniously once he was caught with a prostitute. This was huge, because Worthy was the first athlete the brand had ever endorsed, notoriously having a slogan of "Endorsed by No One" for years before. This made them rethink everything.
In more recent times, Matt “The Red Rocket” Bonner was the most notable guy sporting New Balance on the court. That went well - minus that one big time blowout - until he finally ran out of pairs to wear and ultimately signed with adidas.
Kawhi Leonard fits the bill as far as outliers go. He’s been a star caliber player who avoids the spotlight—last season aside. In a league filled with big personalities, the All-Star forward is best known for quiet and consistent manner, choosing instead to let his play speak for him. This approach runs parallel to what New Balance does by relying less on flash and more on the quality and effectiveness of its shoes to win over customers.
Adding Leonard to its roster gives New Balance a solid one-two punch alongside Darius Bazley, the potential first round pick the company hired as an intern while he waits to become draft eligible. For the 2019 season, they’ll have a marquee player, a coveted rookie, and a new model on display nightly. All three are key ingredients for making fans and the footwear industry take New Balance’s re-entry into the basketball market seriously.
The biggest hurdle may be one of perception. As great as he is as a player, Leonard’s personality isn’t nearly as engaging and his presence on social media is nonexistent. New Balance will face the task of making him appealing to shoe buyers. But, they face their own battle cultivating a sense of cool. When the news broke on Twitter, the jokes and memes were endless. Many of the comments referenced the brand’s penchant for making plain gray and white-based running shoes more suitable dads than dudes trying to make waves with their shoes. In order to make arrangement work, New Balance needs to have its design and marketing teams working overtime to create something where currently there’s nothing.
When it comes to the actual shoes, there haven’t been any leaked info on the direction New Balance is headed. Leonard’s deal may or may not include a signature model, which is reportedly one of the reasons he left Jordan. But, he will be a key figure in marketing whatever flagship model New Balance creates. That shoe will likely be positioned as a team shoe, allowing New Balance to fill in a space that has fewer options since Nike and Adidas have shifted their focus more towards signature lines in their basketball categories.
Depending on how the situation plays out, New Balance and Leonard could end up having the last laugh at the expense of everyone who considered the baller and the brand too bland to make noise together.