With the NBA Finals set, The Four Corners speculate if there will be a return to a more diverse brand era, and also speculate on who can be the clear #2 in the performance footwear pantheon. Sole Shift’s special quartet includes Megan Ann Wilson, stylist and brand consultant, Sole Shift Associate Editor Ray Bala, Nick Engvall, digital content creator and founder of sneakerhistory.com and Sole Shift contributor Hektor Yee.
The only brands left in the NBA Playoffs are Nike, adidas, Under Armour and Anta. Will we ever see an 80s-like revival of five or more brands in any game again?
Wilson: Even mentioning Anta in this conversation is humorous, Klay Thompson’s shoes may be the ugliest in NBA Finals history. I think we will see the five plus era of shoes in a game again because there are enough brands that are willing to buy into the league. Chinese brands like Li-Ning and Anta that are investing in the NBA. I doubt we’ll see Converse again outside of say, a retro Weapon, and somehow Lance Stephenson is still playing in out dated AND1 “technology.” Jordan Brand also doesn’t have an athlete in the finals and Brandblack at least made it to the post season, so that brings us to eight current brands worn by NBA athletes. The Asian market is still growing, Jordan, Nike and Under Armour are ever expanding and smaller brands like Brandblack are investing in NBA rosters so I think we’re almost on par with the 90’s in terms of variety of shoe brands in the NBA.
Bala: No I don’t this will ever happen again. The NBA player sneaker game before 2000 was a time where there was still room for brands outside of Nike and adidas really has a shot at making it onto the court. Nike may have dominated the market, but there was still a good amount of brands making performance kicks and big name players willing to wear them. Looking back at the All-Star games from before then, you see lots of brands that are non-existent today as performance or even basketball brands. It would take a lot of money, players willing to try out new or non-big three companies and a little magic to bring that sneaker environment back to that.
Engvall: I think it’s definitely possible we see that. There are a lot of brands that have great shoes right now. The big names, Nike, adidas and UA will be a part of things for the foreseeable future but brands like Brandblack and Li-Ning are also making some really quality shoes right now too. The beauty of the current landscape is that adidas’ Boost technology and UA’s Curry shoes are opening up some eyes to the competition for Nike in the market. Competition is good for everyone and I wouldn’t be surprised to see other brands jumping into basketball shoes in the future.
Yee: Nope. Like in baseball or footy the rich only get richer. Nike will never go away because their branding is too strong and they’re constantly pushing the boundaries for product performance. Establishment and brand loyalty are everything in this game. The second tier of brands will always be aiming for the smallest piece of the pie.
The trend of late has been for brands to release a model in an abundant scheme of themed colors. Is this market overkill and has the sneaker landscape been stagnant, suffering from model variety?
Wilson: I think it’s market overkill. Brands still produce the odd quickstrike style release but for the most part, you’re seeing a lot of models sitting on the shelves. The average consumer is going to skew more lifestyle in their purchases, or at least a shoe that can be worn more casually. That’s why we’re not seeing a lot of Jordan XXXs and non Curry Under Armour sneakers selling. Can you wear the Curry 2 casually? Not really unless you’re a 10 year old wearing the Steph Curry fan kit to school. While I get the idea of multiple colourways attracting different kinds of consumers, there’s just too much out there right now. Does one need 10+ iterations of the same LeBron model? There needs to be more quality control in performance production, which means better storytelling or trend conscious colourway releases rather than the mass quantity production that we’re seeing now.
Bala: Personally, I’m a little tired of seeing the same sneakers in a hundred different colorways being released every two weeks. I get that the companies are trying to sell product and I get that they are just feeding the demand of consumers that may want a holiday or occasion specific pair, but this is getting to be too much. I think that the sneakers are now less worthwhile owning, since there will be a new color scheme in about the same time it took me to break in my first pair. Don’t take this wrong, I do appreciate the special make-ups like, say, the Kobe Fade to Black collection. Limited runs to commemorate something special or significant makes sense. But if you’re going to throw out a pack of three different colourways after you already dropped seven different others, is just too much. That’s what the sneaker customization pages of the company’s site, like NIKEiD or mi adidas is for.
Engvall: I think it is overkill. Maybe it’s just me but I like the idea of wearing a colourway a player actually did something significant in. I think keeping it simple and concise is “the new black” if you will. There are tons of choices out there, but a lot end up heavily discounted, which works for brands but hurts retailers trying to sell that product.
Yee: Sneaker models and colourways will forever be a divisive topic. Tastes vary and certain classic models are atrocious. It’s not market overkill because the production numbers are conducive to the markets segmentation demands. Just like music there’s too much coming out too fast and the market consumes and spits out product at such a high rate that eventually the true heat gets its likely due.
With the basketball sneaker landscape largely owned by Nike/Jordan Brand, how does the race for second look between adidas and Under Armour? Does there seem to be a clear cut front-runner for the second spot on the food chain?
Wilson: When it comes to strictly basketball performance footwear, the front runner is Under Armour. They’ve already eclipsed adidas’ sales in basketball and they have the two-time reigning MVP wearing their shoes, heading to the NBA Finals. Under Armour is crushing it at the prep school and AAU level, which is something that the average NBA fan may not think about. They’re courting these kids at a young age and pushing performance over aesthetics, rather than say the legacy of the brand name like Nike. They may still wear Jordans, Nike or adidas off-court, but many of these kids only want to hoop in Under Armour – like Steph Curry. They didn’t grow up watching Jordan so it’ll be interesting to see what shoe companies they side with once they enter the NBA. If we were talking lifestyle, adidas is the clear front runner over Under Armour, if only because the UA shoe aesthetics continue to be purely performance focused. adidas is tapping into the right influencers and musicians to position themselves as the lifestyle brand. Performance wise, athletes like Dame Lillard bring spirit and a cool factor but unless you’re a Lillard fan or in Portland, they’re just not as impactful. The Curry effect is too real.
Bala: This is a tough one but I think Under Armour is the next up primarily because they’re doing it on the strength of one player endorsement. adidas has a long history with an incredible catalogue of sneakers, as well as some of the best and up and coming talent in the NBA on their team. However, they haven’t really A) made a splash with a pair that truly captivated the world and B) even with their roster of star power that only seem to be getting special make-ups there doesn’t seem to be any new signature lines for these stars. UA is really milking Steph Curry, and right now as a brand they kinda have to, but they are doing it through variations of his signature model in both shoes (think Curry Two, Curry Two Low and Curry 2.5) and aesthetic appearance. adidas at the moment has a line for Derrick Rose and that’s it (can’t include John Wall in this). The Stripes should already have a James Harden if not Dame Lillard and Andrew Wiggins lines also. UA is totally running away with this one over adidas unless they can make a splash for next season.
Engvall: Under Armour has made some great strides with the Curry line but they are still a long way behind adidas in my opinion. adidas has a greater spread of athletes across all levels of basketball, amateur, college and NBA. What a lot of people don’t realize is that these big deals the rookies are signing are the result of relationships that start years before. UA is making phenomenal shoes but not a lot of players are wearing them, they need to use the Curry energy to get other guys in the NBA wearing UA. Until then, adidas is still a stronghold on the second spot.
Yee: All Day I Dream About… adidas is the established brand and Under Armour wishes for that kind of established longevity. They’ve done a great job penetrating the market and as much as they remind me of And 1, they seem to be a real player in the game. But at the end of the day, the three stripes is the tried and tested brand and any other companies really are just competing for 3rd place.