Before last summer, every top N.B.A. draft pick of this decade had signed a sneaker endorsement contract with Nike or Adidas. DeAndre Ayton, this year’s No. 1 pick, did not.
“We were dealing with Nike people, Under Armour and all the other shoe companies,” he said soon afterward. “We just thought Puma was the right fit.”
Marvin Bagley III, the second pick, went with Puma, too. He said in an email that he chose the company because “they’re willing to do things differently, which is what I like about them.”
If Puma started the 2018 insurgency against the traditional shoe powers, New Balance joined the rebellion last month. Multiple news outlets reported the company had landed a deal with Kawhi Leonard after he turned down a multiyear contract worth $22 million from Nike. In October, New Balance revealed it had signed the much-hyped prospect Darius Bazley to a million-dollar contract. Bazley, 18, is not yet in the N.B.A. He is interning with the company and training for the draft instead of playing a “one and done” year in college.
Marvin Bagley III, left, a Kings rookie, and Upscale Vandal attended an event in Brooklyn in June for the Clyde Court Disrupt, Puma’s first basketball shoe in nearly 20 years.CreditBryan Bedder/Getty Images for PUMA
Not to be outdone, Under Armour added Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers’ charismatic young center, to its roster days before the season began, beating out competition from Puma and New Balance. He joined Stephen Curry and Dennis Smith Jr. on the Under Armour payroll.
The rush of upstart brands signing N.B.A. players is a testament to the league’s ever-expanding popularity; even being tangentially associated with the league gives the brands some credibility with young consumers, they insist. Which is a good thing, given that experts say the shoes themselves may tank.
“The headline for us when it comes down to why are we getting back into basketball after 20 years is culture culture culture culture culture,” said Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director for brand and marketing. “The N.B.A. and all the other entertainment mechanisms around it, whether it’s ESPN or Complex magazine, are attuned to creating a 24-hour news cycle around basketball. In our day of mass news media mass consumption, we have the option to benefit from that.”
Mark Bartelstein, a top N.B.A. agent whose client Gordon Hayward recently signed with the Chinese shoe company Anta, said the companies were battling for a piece of the basketball business because “the money follows what is hot, and the N.B.A. is very hot.”
Executives at Puma and New Balance, eager to justify major investments, were quick to agree, pointing to the outsize influence of a league with a global footprint that extends beyond sports. They say that it has never been more important to be associated with the N.B.A.
As Bagley put it, Puma’s “culture is not strictly basketball — it’s a full lifestyle brand that not only supports me as a basketball player, but also as an artist.”
And yet Puma may be making this bet at precisely the wrong time, as the market for basketball shoes is bottoming out.
According to Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group, basketball shoes now account for just 4 percent of the shoe market, down from a high of 13 percent a few years ago. Performance sneakers — shoes worn for athletic activity — are doing poorly more generally.
Consumers, Powell said, are now more interested in looking like athletes than they are in imitating their abilities.
“This is the peak of the athleisure trend,” he said. “They just want to look the part. If you are going after looking the part, you don’t need to spend $150 on a top-end basketball or running shoe.”
Executives like Petrick say they are not concerned.
“Most people don’t wear performance sneakers for performance,” he said. “So when we’re trying to appeal to our core consumer, it’s not going to be just around the features and benefits of the product, it’s going to be around the brand perception. Being a part of basketball culture means that we’re a part of culture, period.”
Puma announced its re-entry into basketball in March, signifying the rebirth of a product line that had last been associated with Vince Carter in the 1990s. New Balance’s history in the N.B.A. dates back even farther. James Worthy and M.L. Carr were endorsers in the 1980s, but as Nike became dominant and endorsers started earning millions of dollars, New Balance largely exited the sport.
In recent years, the most prominent player to wear New Balance was the San Antonio Spurs’ redheaded sharpshooter Matt Bonner. Though he wasn’t a paid endorser, Bonner’s goofy-dad image was then a perfect fit for a brand that for years did not even attempt to be cool and proved very successful at falling well short of vogue.
New Balance would not confirm that it had signed Leonard, whose strong play for the Toronto Raptors has helped his team become a favorite to make the N.B.A. finals. Chris Davis, a vice president for global and sports marketing at New Balance, would only say that any brand would be lucky to have Leonard.
Davis said New Balance had put together a 12-year plan to become the third-largest athletic brand in the world. It wants to grow from $4.5 billion in revenue to $7 billion by 2023, meaning third place behind Nike and Adidas is an extremely lucrative place to be. And any strategy for global growth now requires investing in basketball.
“It is the second-biggest global sport,” he said, adding that New Balance’s two biggest markets are the United States and China, where basketball is huge. And New Balance, like Puma, has also ventured into street style: A collection of shoes created in tandem with the streetwear label Kith was released late last month.
For shoe companies, however, it isn’t enough for N.B.A. players just to wear their shoes off the court. Though the vast majority of buyers will never wear their shoes to play basketball, if shoes aren’t worn on the court by players, they are seen as inauthentic.
New Balance also buys into the current industrywide belief that both athletes and consumers are more open to so-called challenger brands — brands that go after the lords of the realm — than ever before. There have never been as many shoe companies vying for sneaker free agents as there are today, a trend that started in earnest five years ago when Under Armour signed Curry.
Unlike its competitors, Under Armour is content to stay a performance-first brand, unless its athletes dictate otherwise. Asked about slacking sales for performance shoes, Ron Johnson, the general manager for global basketball at Under Armour, was sanguine.
“I feel like there’s always going to be headwinds and challenges in various categories, whether it be seasonality or the cyclical nature of trends,” he said.
Performance sales could pick back up. But Powell, the NPD analyst, was not optimistic. He pointed out that plummeting sales for performance shoes went beyond basketball. Whether it is running, tennis, training or any other athletic activity, performance footwear has fallen out of fashion. Last year’s best-selling shoe was Nike’s Tanjun, which is similar to the Nike Free running shoe but costs half as much.
Puma’s Petrick acknowledged the challenges for signature basketball shoes, but he said that creating separate silos for performance footwear and off-court footwear was not a genuine reflection of how the industry worked. He doesn’t care all that much whether fewer pairs of the $185 LeBron James signature Nike shoes are flying off the shelves.
“I can tell you that LeBron is wildly relevant as a cultural icon to our core consumer,” he said. “So why wouldn’t I want to inhabit this space?”