LeBron James will forever be compared to Michael Jordan. Their stats on and off the court provide fodder for fans debating which athlete should wear basketball’s G.O.A.T. crown. In the sneaker category, Forbes recently put Jordan’s annual earnings at $130 million, which dwarfs James' $32 million. However, that may not always be the case. While James continues his chase to top Jordan on the court, the path to catching his idol in footwear may be helped by the fact that Jordan created a clear path for James to follow. The route could one day lead to Jordan owning a brand with Nike, much like his predecessor.
The connection between James and Jordan is organic. When James came into the league, he wore the number 23, just like Jordan, until changing it to number 6 in 2010 when he signed with the Miami Heat. James has also referenced Jordan in his sneakers, wearing a Cement Print pair this past season for the Los Angeles Lakers. While Jordan was a trailblazer in the sneaker endorsement industry, there was already a path set for James to follow. To literally follow in Jordan's footsteps.
Nike reaffirmed its commitment to James in 2015 by signing him to a “lifetime” deal that’s expected to earn him over a billion dollars over time. The only other Nike athletes with similar arrangements? Jordan, of course, and Cristiano Ronaldo, which puts James in rare company. Beyond the money, Nike recently named a building at its Beaverton headquarters after James. Again, the ongoing level of commitment to the relationship by both sides shows they’re still looking for ways to expand it. What better way to do that on a product side than to give the man a subsidiary of his own so both sides can cash in on his popularity?
Chances are it all comes back to the shoes. James and Nike are on the seventeenth iteration of his signature sneakers, and we can expect more while he’s still playing. His line of sneakers will retro follow the path laid by Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Nike continues to crank out new models for both former greats, calling on current players to wear the shoes on both the pro and collegiate level. The company will likely do the same with James’ signature series long after his NBA days draw to a close. They’ll also have more than just new models to work with. There are a lengthy number of older models Nike will pull from to retro. Granted, nobody can hold a candle to the run Tinker Hatfield crafted for Michael with Air Jordans 1 through XIV. The athlete and those shoes birthed the phenomenon associated with footwear today.
Still, James has got a long list of sought-after colorways, never-released player exclusives, friends-and-family editions, and more from which Nike can bring back. Besides the long list of highs and lows in his signature line, the other series—the Ambassadors, Soldiers, Witnesses, 20-5-5s, and more—will provide ample options for reissues as well. Sure, they’re not coveted by collectors now, but people weren’t clamoring for some of the Team Jordan shoes either until they returned. Current generations of teens and kids have watched LeBron’s footwear progression the same way legions of footwear fans and basketball fanatics still covet Jordan’s retros today. The shoes they couldn’t cop the first time around will be welcomed back with open arms and wallets.
James possesses all the intangibles to make his own brand work. He already has his hands in a number of things that can serve as promotional vehicles outside of basketball. His nearly 52 million and counting Instagram followers tune in for every update. The move to Los Angeles paved the way for him to enter Hollywood once his playing career is over. He got his first taste of success with 2008’s More than a Game documentary and later followed it up with memorable performance in the romantic comedy Trainwreck. Next up, he’ll take the lead in Space Jam 2, the sequel to the 1996 original which helped cement Jordan’s status as a worldwide star. Nike will be along for the ride with any success the film experiences and will want to find ways to attach themselves to any future Hollywood appearances James generates.
In many ways, James’ business approach mirrors another MJ—Magic Johnson—more than Jordan. Much like Johnson’s move to open his theaters and form a partnership with Starbucks, James branched into businesses outside of sports, looking to other sectors to boost his earnings and finding ways to impact communities. James and the team around him made controlling their destiny and ownership key elements of their narrative. It helps he’s been one of the league’s top talents since day one of his NBA career. He’s leveraged that popularity to open doors and create opportunities for himself and his associates, namely longtime business partner and friend Maverick Carter.
Since entering the league, the duo leveraged his star power to gain stakes in companies like Beats headphones, Liverpool FC, and Blaze Pizza. James and Carter established a foothold in Hollywood with their production house, SpringHill Entertainment, and in the publishing world with the digital platform The Uninterrupted. Carter’s already predicted “LeBron will be owning a basketball team or a football team and acting” in the next ten years. With the expectations set, it stands to reason he’ll eventually be too big for Nike to house under the basketball umbrella. He’ll require a division dedicated solely to the business of LeBron.
Nike and James cultivated a global awareness around the kid from Akron, making him a one-name entity around the globe. Much like Jordan, his presence won’t evaporate when his pro career ends. His playing days may be numbered, but he’s already created a huge space for himself in the footwear business. And it’s all the more reason why Nike could carve out a subsidiary for him before everything’s said and done.