WHEN ZION WILLIAMSON arrived at the sold-out Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for his prime-time debut at the NBA summer league in early July, his choice of footwear had the NBA buzzing.
Could Puma actually pull this off?
A year after Puma landed 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton for the company’s reentry into the basketball sneaker market, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft walked into the arena for his first NBA game wearing a white and red blast pair of the Puma RS-X Reinvention.
And while he hit the court that night wearing a pair of Nike Kyrie 4s from his Duke days, he spent the rest of summer league alternating between sneakers from Puma and Jordan Brand as he sat and watched his New Orleans Pelicans teammates from the sidelines. Those two companies had emerged as the front-runners in the Zion sweepstakes, a bidding war that saw some competitors offer deals that could’ve paid the young superstar nearly $20 million per year.
In the end, Michael Jordan got his man.
“Zion’s incredible determination, character and play are inspiring,” Michael Jordan said in a news release announcing the deal. “He’s an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future.”
But the path to putting the most famous North Carolina alum’s logo on the feet of the former Duke star wasn’t nearly as simple as a 10-mile drive down Tobacco Road.
SONNY VACCARO HAD a plan.
The legendary sports marketing pioneer, who famously pushed Nike to sign Jordan 35 years ago, was serving as an adviser to Williamson and Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepfather. From the beginning of the process, Vaccaro tried to create a sense of urgency around the May 14 draft lottery.
“My conversation with the family was that I see dead spots [marketwise] in this draft,” he said. “My speech was that, ‘We’re going to do this early. It’s going to be done before you go there.'”
Unfortunately, by the time Williamson officially declared for the draft on April 15, the timeline to get a deal done had already gone awry.
Anderson had played college basketball at Clemson in the late 1970s alongside James “Chubby” Wells, who went on to find success as an NBA agent in the mid-2000s, representing role players around the league like Dale Davis and Ramon Sessions after his own 12-year career playing professional basketball overseas.
The family’s plan was to have Wells and Anderson form a new sports agency, centered on the generational talent and appeal of Williamson once he turned pro. Before that could happen, Wells needed to become recertified with the National Basketball Players Association, after his prior player representation approval window had lapsed.
But Wells failed the agent certification test administered by the NBPA — a mandate for all agents looking to represent players in negotiations with teams. The 50-question multiple-choice test can only be taken once per calendar year, meaning Wells is unable to retest again until January 2020.
With Wells unable to serve as Williamson’s official representative, the family turned to a different option, hiring longtime marketing agent Gina Ford and her newly formed Prime Sports agency for representation in marketing deals. Still, the setback made the likelihood of finalizing such a complex deal in advance of the lottery highly unlikely.
In 2003, when LeBron James hit the sneaker market after declaring for the NBA, then-agent Aaron Goodwin was adamant that he sign his shoe deal before the draft lottery, minimizing the importance of where he’d land in a year when smaller markets Cleveland, Denver and Toronto had the best chance of landing the top overall pick. He ended up landing a seven-year, $87 million deal with Nike that was announced the day of the lottery, before the Cavaliers landed the top pick.
Williamson entered the NBA with as high a profile as any draft pick since James. He simultaneously built equity with fans through a glowing personality and a nonstop series of highlight dunks that exploded almost nightly on Instagram. By the time he turned pro, Williamson had 2.9 million followers on Instagram, a total higher than more than half of the players in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game.
But even so, the delay might’ve been a costly one.
“In my opinion, if it was done a certain way and before the draft lottery, the deal could have dwarfed LeBron’s original deal,” Goodwin said.
WHEN PUMA REENTERED the NBA scene a year ago, the company did so with a mix of promising rookies and expressive veterans, with DeMarcus Cousins as the company’s highest-profile established player. But behind the scenes, the company was prioritizing a yearlong plan to pitch Zion Williamson, who had yet to play a college basketball game. Puma knew the kind of instant impact, visibility and awareness that adding him would’ve brought to the company.
As the thinking in marketing circles went, what Allen Iverson did for Reebok, and what Stephen Curry has achieved with Under Armour, Zion could do for Puma. He would instantly become the face of not just their basketball brand, but the entire brand, on a global scale. He could uplift and change the trajectory of the entire company.
The brand had laid a foundation of disruptive marketing both online through its social media channels and with a series of physical events at All-Star Weekend and in key markets. Over the course of the year, players and consumers had responded positively to the colorways and designs of its first performance models in almost two decades.
But the company knew that a strong social media presence and flashy on-court sneakers wouldn’t be enough to land Williamson. So when they met with the future No. 1 pick earlier this spring, they offered him an impressive financial commitment: a deal that soared as high as $15 million per year, plus the potential to add an additional $3 million a year in bonuses, according to industry sources.
The initial meeting went well, and in ongoing talks throughout the following months, Puma appeared to have presented Williamson with the kind of comprehensive package — both financial and intangible — that he wasn’t going to get with another brand.
When Williamson walked into summer league wearing one of Puma’s casual sneakers, company executives were beaming. Heading into Las Vegas Summer League action, Puma execs believed they’d get a final answer from Williamson on their pitch by the end of the weekend. Seeing him start the weekend in a Puma shoe made them believe they had a great shot of landing him.
BEFORE BEING HIRED by Zion Williamson and his family, Gina Ford had been most known in marketing circles for her work over the past decade with another generational athlete: track and field icon Usain Bolt. The nine-time gold medalist has built a business portfolio highlighted by as many as 16 endorsement deals with several massive global brands. However, it was his partnership with Puma, a deal he’s had in place since 2003 that at its peak paid him $10 million per year, that was most intriguing to industry insiders who saw Ford’s partnership with Williamson as the pathway to a massive offer from the brand.
After signing on to represent Williamson, Ford quickly worked to put together meetings not only with sneaker companies but with global companies such as 2K Sports, Beats by Dre, Mercedes-Benz and Powerade.
By early May, though, the sneaker deal negotiations simply weren’t progressing. While the family knew the switch from Wells to Ford’s Prime Sports group would create a delay on the preferred timeline Vaccaro had laid out for them, they were still hopeful they’d get a deal done before Williamson’s NBA destination was known.
When the initial reveal of the draft order showed that the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks had jumped into the top four, it seemed as if that delay might have actually worked to Williamson’s favor. But in just 16 seconds, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum dashed those hopes, opening envelopes to reveal the logos of the Lakers and Knicks. Only Memphis and New Orleans remained on the board.
Had the Knicks landed the top pick, it would’ve made Williamson the most marketable star in the NBA’s largest market. Brands would’ve been able to put his face up all over New York City, not only as the face of their brand, but as the face of the potentially resurgent Knicks — a team that would’ve gone into the summer having added the No. 1 pick, and made themselves far more attractive to established superstar free agents on July 1 in the process.
“We were talking about the New York Knicks,” Vaccaro said. “I said, ‘You have to understand, they are pathetic. More than pathetic. There’s only one thing that’s constant — everybody knows who they are.'”
Vaccaro had held loose strategy conversations with Anderson before Ford came on board, but she took overall strategic direction upon signing in mid-April. Yet two weeks after the draft lottery, Williamson was still without a sneaker deal, and he had only taken a single official brand presentation to that point.
The family pivoted again, signing with CAA Sports on May 30 and dumping Ford the following day via email. His newly hired full-service agency features four primary basketball agents and three co-heads of client management, and it has negotiated more than $4 billion in contracts for a roster featuring 75 NBA players. CAA would aim to provide 360-degree representation for Williamson, both in team deals and on-court matters, along with all marketing negotiations, endorsement relationship management and off-court endeavors.
The shift meant starting over, though with the lottery behind them, there was no longer a sense of urgency to get a deal done. Williamson — and the rest of the world — knew he’d be in New Orleans. And the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which set the rookie scale salaries, guaranteed that Williamson would make nearly $10 million this year, and potentially more than $44 million over his first four years.
With the threat of a lawsuit from Ford in the air, Williamson first filed his own suit a week before the draft, claiming that the marketing agreement he signed was “unlawful” and therefore void, because Ford had failed to register in North Carolina with the state registry as a marketing agent pursuing student-athletes. Ford also failed to include boldface type on the contract’s signature page notifying Williamson that by signing the agreement, he’d be relinquishing his amateur status as a college athlete, as required by the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agents Act.
Meanwhile, Ford threw one more curveball into the process, filing her lawsuit the day before the draft, claiming $100 million in damages for breach of contract, after initially securing a signed marketing agreement contract that called for no termination options for the first five years. In fact, the original contract stated that Ford could only be terminated “for cause,” a rarity in the NBA, where agents and managers are often fired on a whim, without reason. The additional legal hang-up forced CAA Sports to proceed cautiously in its initial meetings with sneaker brands.
In her court filing, Ford outlined that during her time working for Williamson, Prime Sports had already “successfully secured, obtained and negotiated” a potential sneaker deal with “monetary compensation of an immediate $100 Million.” According to Ford, that meeting took place on April 28, although the exact brand is not specified in the filing. The brand is believed to be either Puma or Li-Ning, according to industry sources. However, Ford only names Puma in her court filing among the list of brands she had been actively negotiating with.
It’s also unclear from the court filing whether that nine-figure total refers to an actual upfront payment upon signing or just a guaranteed total over the life of the negotiated deal, but either way the amount would’ve been unprecedented. The only active players to receive a nine-figure sneaker deal at any point in their careers are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Derrick Rose, who among them have nine MVP awards.
WHEN WILLIAMSON ANNOUNCED his Jordan Brand deal with an Instagram post that featured him Photoshopped into a “ZION” jersey, it was an extra twist of the knife for Adidas. The Jumpman logo was on the right chest of the modified jersey; in the original version of that photo, in that same spot, were the famed three stripes of Adidas.
Adidas was linked to Williamson throughout his high school career, sponsoring both his Spartanburg Day high school team and the SC Supreme AAU team that he headlined and Anderson directed. He appeared on the cover of SLAM Magazine at just 16 years old, wearing that Spartanburg Day jersey with the Adidas logo prominently featured.
Even with the company shifting resources away from basketball toward entertainment partnerships, it seemed like their relationship with Williamson would transcend that trend. The company saw him as a potential signature star, worthy of being put immediately alongside their focal point players, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell.
Williamson wore Adidas products on and off the court at Spartanburg Day, demonstrating his ability to be a potential game-changer for Adidas. The company invested resources in filming the last two years of his high school career, with since-shelved plans to release a documentary at some point after he turned pro. Over the past several months, a loosely organized “Zion Committee” had even been formed by the brand, quietly putting together presentation decks and product designs for their eventual pitch.
Ultimately, Adidas never even presented to the family.
In a case of history repeating itself, the seriousness of Adidas’ commitment to Williamson waned before terms could be put on the table. It was eerily reminiscent of 2003, when Adidas had talked up a $100 million offer to LeBron James, only to come to the table with $60 million guaranteed, which disappointed Vaccaro and ended with James landing with Nike.
Before Adidas’ potential meeting with Williamson, company executives opted to halt plans of an offer that would’ve exceeded $10 million annually for a length of as many as 10 years. However, one particular element of the planned pitch was already in motion and too far along to be canceled.
While the meeting between Adidas and Williamson was to have taken place in Los Angeles in late May, across the country, in Williamson’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Adidas was putting the finishing touches on a new outdoor basketball court.
The court donation, which had already been cleared with city planners and local parks and recreation leaders, was intended to be a show of the brand’s commitment to making an impact in Williamson’s childhood community. Instead, the court, shining in Spartanburg Day blue and red, lives on as a reminder of what could have been.
WHEN DWYANE WADE left Jordan Brand for Li-Ning in 2012, he set the stage for a new generation of NBA players to sign endorsement deals with China-based sneaker companies. However, historically, Chinese companies have looked to sign more established All-Star-level players to signature shoe deals, tapping into an existing fan base and awareness level throughout the region. Rookies, as the thinking inside those companies goes, don’t have those things.
Zion Williamson was the exception.
Both Li-Ning and Anta prepared aggressive offers, believing that Williamson offered a bridge to the United States sneaker market that no Chinese company has yet been able to crack.
Li-Ning worked months in advance of a potential meeting to build at least seven-player exclusive editions of their YuShaui XIII and Sonic 7 models in Williamson’s size 16, in Duke hues no less. Each pair featured a tandem of Zion-specific logos, one a caricature of his commonly seen biceps flex, the other a devil-horned “D” icon honoring his time as a Blue Devil. Variations in low-top, high-cut and mid-cut were offered to try out, speaking to the brand’s eagerness to sign him, but also to their willingness to create custom footwear to fit his needs.
Like Puma, Li-Ning backed up that eagerness with a serious financial commitment: up to $19 million per year, according to industry sources.
Anta was similarly aggressive. The brand, located in the uniquely beachside city of Xiamen — dubbed by locals as the “South Beach of China” — was hoping to host the family at its headquarters for a pitch. The goal was to show off their manufacturing factory just 90 minutes away, where they’ll often custom-make sneakers for current brand headliner Klay Thompson in his very own branch of the production area, and also to impress Williamson and his family with the sheer scope and scale of the Chinese market, where Anta boasts more than 10,000 retail stores.
Instead, a select team of Anta executives and product leaders ventured to Los Angeles, meeting with Zion and his family over a span of a couple of hours in advance of the draft, while walking them through product plans ahead. They’d eventually make a starting offer of $15 million per year.
TEN DAYS BEFORE the 2019 NBA draft, the doors to the Steve Prefontaine Hall just beyond the pond-lined entrance to Nike’s 286-acre Beaverton, Oregon, campus were covered with a message:
Welcome Zion & Family.
Underneath the text, the Nike Swoosh and Jordan Brand Jumpman stood side by side, as the company presented a unified front to set the stage for its biggest athlete pitch in more than 15 years. While LeBron James and Kevin Durant both received industry-defining deals from Nike Basketball upon entering the league, the company’s pitch to Zion Williamson was distinctly different.
Though the Swoosh was present, the plan from the start was for this to be a Jordan Brand pitch, grounded in the belief that Williamson could take the $3 billion sub-brand of Nike Inc. centered around the Air Jordan line to even greater heights. He would potentially wear the upcoming Air Jordan 34, the brand’s flagship annual model that Michael Jordan himself made famous during his playing career. Eventually, he would receive his own signature Jordan Brand model, with a reveal of that sneaker coming as early as All-Star Weekend in Chicago, Jordan’s home for most of his professional playing career.
Williamson would join Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook as the only Jordan Brand players with a signature shoe, and he’d bolster the brand’s visibility in a league where only 7% of active players wear Jordan Brand sneakers. Conversely, more than 67% of NBA players wear Nike-branded models, which has led the company to put an internal emphasis on balancing their star rosters. They moved Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum from Nike to Jordan this offseason, but Williamson would be the centerpiece of that strategy.
Jorge Sedano says Zion Williamson’s shoe deal with Jordan is good because it’s a new, young face for the brand.
“Over the last 34 years we’ve built an incredible roster of talent with the same determination and greatness as MJ,” said Howard White, Jordan VP of brand affairs. “There is something special about Zion that reminds me of MJ when he was younger.”
While Williamson was being pitched as a Jordan Brand athlete, Nike made sure to sell him on its vast company-wide resources, making available both new technologies and new manufacturing techniques that could improve product performance for the player.
Ironically, Williamson’s worst moment in a Nike sneaker turned out to be one of the best moments for the company. When his PG 2.5 fell apart 33 seconds into the nationally televised showdown with North Carolina, Nike was able to give Williamson an early firsthand look at those vast company-wide resources. They sprung into action to design a custom sneaker for the rest of his college career that would support the needs of Williamson’s unique blend of speed and power. The personal attention they were able to give him gave Williamson and his family a comfort level with Nike they might not have had otherwise.
Still, Nike wouldn’t leave anything to chance.
As they outlined the plan to figuratively and literally support Williamson throughout his career, they highlighted the Nike Sport Research Lab, home of the company’s Innovation Kitchen. It’s where Nike develops the next performance innovations for sneakers down the road, sometimes as far off as five to 10 years. Some of them may eventually make their way into an Air Zion sneaker. Some may never happen.
But just as important as what was happening in the NSRL was the setting itself: the Mia Hamm Building. Not only is it one of the largest on Nike’s campus — stand it up vertically, and it’d be the tallest building in the Portland region — but it’s named for one of Nike’s legendary athletes. And it’s not alone in that distinction.
Nearly 300 athletes are highlighted in bronzed portraits along each pillar of the open-air walkways between Nike’s buildings. Vinyl posters of icons across all sports, all genders and all races alternate on the uphill walk toward the Jerry Rice Building.
Athletes often leave the Nike headquarters impressed, but the one central theme of the brand thought to have resonated most for Williamson wasn’t any of the near-term sneaker designs presented or any snappy campaign taglines. He also simply left millions on the table with this decision.
It’s the way athletes are celebrated — almost mythologized — by the company over the course of history, both externally to fans across the world and internally with its personal relationships.
Just 130 steps to the left of the family’s “Pre Hall” welcome sign was The Michael Jordan Building.
That significance wasn’t lost on the 18-year-old. One day, well down the road, dreams of The Zion Williamson Building lie ahead, in the decades to come.
“He told us he would ‘shock the world’ and asked us to believe him,” Jordan said. “We do.”