‘America loves Zion’: Inside the sneaker frenzy

Zion Williamson is about to get paid.

Long before he steps on an NBA court, the projected No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft is expected to land a sneaker endorsement deal that will make him far richer than his first NBA contract will.

In fact, many in the sneaker industry expect that Williamson’s eventual deal will make him one of the three highest-paid rookie sneaker endorsers ever, joining the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

“In my lifetime, I think it’s going to be the biggest bidding war ever done,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the famed former marketing executive with Nike, Adidas and Reebok. “I would put them all on go.”

Like James, whose deal was done before the draft lottery that would eventually land him in Cleveland, Williamson is expected by industry insiders to have a deal inked before this year’s May 14 draft lottery, as the major sneaker companies see Williamson as a potential marketing superstar regardless of which market he lands in.

Back in 2003, James met with Reebok and turned down a $10 million check from the CEO to sign a potential $100 million deal with the brand on the spot. James would instead sign with Nike a week later for a fully guaranteed $87 million over seven years, and now has a lifetime deal with the company.



LeBron James lists the things that he admires about Zion Williamson and his game.

Six years later, Durant sat through a presentation at the Adidas Village in Portland, Oregon, that ended with a seven-year, $70 million contract offer, loaded with additional incentive bonuses. However, once it dawned on him that he and his friends couldn’t wear their beloved Air Force 1s anymore, Durant instead signed with Nike, his longtime favorite brand, for a still-staggering $60 million over seven years, and re-signed with Nike in 2014.

Though James had three serious suitors and Durant had a battle between Nike and Adidas, Williamson could receive offers from as many as six brands, including Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, New Balance, Puma and Anta.

“Sitting here at this age and watching 50 years of it, Zion has made me feel like it’s 1984,” said the 79-year-old Vaccaro. “I’m serious.”

A forefather of the sports marketing world who originally worked for Nike decades ago, Vaccaro famously pushed to allot the brand’s entire athlete budget toward signing Michael Jordan in 1984, for $500,000 per year. He then left for Adidas in the early 1990s, shifting his focus to the new landscape of prep-to-pro phenoms, signing Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to deals with the Three Stripes before they’d ever played an NBA game.

In Williamson, people see the raw athletic talent and a basketball skill set that has advanced and met the hype, but for many in the marketing world like Vaccaro, it extends beyond that.

“If Zion doesn’t change, I predict that he will be the first basketball athlete at 18 years old that the world is rooting for to become a billionaire. I say billionaire, very easily,” Vaccaro said. “He is going to have an opportunity to be the face of every company and every major corporation. He is the most marketable person I’ve seen, for a lot of different reasons.”

There’s a star appeal, likable radiance and must-see dynamic to his game and aura that’s hard to quantify. There’s also no disputing the power of social media in this era, and the instant visibility that it affords him. Brands can rarely justify more than $3 million to $4 million per year on a deal for a player who doesn’t have a shoe with his name on it at retail stores. The cost is simply prohibitive.



Jay Bilas says if Zion Williamson were to enter the NBA right now, he would instantly be one of the best 50 players in basketball.

Only 17 active NBA players had their own signature shoe this season. By next fall, that number will grow, with Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s debut Nike FR34K 1 model, and Donovan Mitchell‘s Adidas D.O.N. Issue #1 sneaker both expected to be released this summer.

For Williamson, the inclusion of a signature sneaker could be necessary to seal the deal. Only nine players in league history have had a signature shoe for their rookie season.

The company in which that may be hardest to pull off is Nike. The brand will have five current signature shoes in the market, for James, Durant, Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and Paul George.

That’s in addition to its ongoing Kobe Bryant performance series. Over 65 percent of the league wears Nike sneakers. Another 7 percent wears the company’s Jordan Brand.

According to sources, executives have already begun to have company balance discussions around targeting Williamson to be a Jordan athlete instead, given Nike’s current crowded stable. There have been conflicting viewpoints on whether that would be the right decision.

“There could be some hurt feelings,” Vaccaro said. “Other than those five [signature athletes] at Nike, another 20 of them are pretty goddamn great players that could be going to the Hall of Fame and don’t have [a shoe]. They’ve been on the totem pole, and now [Zion] is going to get a zillion-dollar contract and go above everyone else.”

In many ways, Williamson has already risen above the totem pole of dozens of Nike players this season, regardless of his amateur status. The platform that Duke affords eclipses those of several of the league’s more marginal franchises.

February’s anticipated Duke-North Carolina matchup was the highest-rated Champ Week game ever broadcast on ESPN. His exploded Nike PG 2.5 shoe was undoubtedly the biggest sneaker story of the year. Former President Barack Obama, seated courtside, instantly pointed and could be seen saying, “His shoe broke,” just moments after Williamson burst through his left sneaker. The leather, mesh and foam explosion blew up social media in real time.



Zion Williamson cuts so hard his shoe falls apart, which causes him to fall down and lose the ball for a UNC layup.

“That picture of the broken shoe was in China, five seconds after it happened,” Vaccaro said with a laugh. “The kid is everywhere.”

Though the malfunction brought increased scrutiny to Nike and its Paul George signature shoe, the company’s reaction also spoke to the immediate resources and ability of the brand to meet Williamson’s needs, something that put the other brands hoping to sign Williamson on notice.

A team of Nike’s “top people,” according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, immediately flew to Durham the following day, examining the torn-through shoe, speaking to coaches and meeting with Williamson to determine what went wrong, evaluate his preferences and plot out potential solutions.

“Then, those people went to China to actually look at the making of a shoe that would be very supportive,” Krzyzewski said. “Then, they came back within a week with different alternatives to make sure that it was done right.”

Williamson ultimately missed six games with a sprained right knee, then returned in a reinforced and more supportive version of Kyrie Irving’s fourth signature shoe, similar to one that Williamson had already worn during the season. Of the 17 different Nike sneaker editions he has worn in games as a Blue Devil, he has worn the Kyrie 4 most often, now in seven different colorways.

“They were stronger than the regular Kyrie 4,” Williamson said. He later added: “The shoes were incredible.”

The truth is, Williamson’s frame and game warranted custom-made sneakers all along.

Every brand makes sneakers with custom foot shapes, additional support or modifications for its top NBA players. However, Nike has made custom pairs for college athletes in only extreme cases, such as the time they provided 7-foot-7 center Kenny George with a dozen pairs of a Size 26 shoe in the mid-2000s. Modifications are typically reserved for official pro endorsers only.

At the Nike offices, Williamson’s size has called to mind just a few select names: the forceful frames of James, Charles Barkley and Blake Griffin. “A rare blend of speed and power,” one Nike director dubbed it.

“I don’t know if they’re going to get him,” Vaccaro said. “But if there’s an odds-on favorite to getting him, it would be Nike.”

However, while Williamson has become linked with Nike because of his time at Duke, he was long seen as “an Adidas kid” before that.

During an Instagram Live video last month while injured, he was seen posted up on his couch in a full Adidas tracksuit. Away from the Nike-mandated Duke practice facility, on his own time, he’s often wearing Adidas sneakers casually. That’s no coincidence, as throughout high school, Adidas sponsored Williamson’s Spartanburg Day School team, along with his South Carolina Supreme AAU team. Music star Drake and NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. were even spotted wearing his red No. 12 high school jersey.



Zion Williamson, the No. 2 hoops recruit in the 2018 ESPN 60, dishes on his relationship with his most famous fan.

Williamson’s mother, Sharonda Sampson, a former track and field athlete, coached his youth basketball teams early on. And her husband and Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, a former Clemson basketball player, helmed the SC Supreme summer team, with ample Adidas funding.

It was on the Adidas AAU circuit that Williamson made his name against top competition, often wearing newly released colorways of James Harden‘s Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 signature sneakers in his viral dunk mixtapes. As Williamson was set to enter his senior season of high school, according to sources, some within the brand had discussed having Williamson debut the Harden Vol. 2 sneaker even before Harden, who is signed to a 13-year deal with Adidas and went on to win MVP honors in the shoe that season.

However, in the wake of the brand’s involvement in the FBI investigation into illegal payments at the NCAA level, Adidas has been dramatically pulling back its spending on NBA player contracts. At least 12 players, including Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Harrison Barnes and Kelly Oubre Jr., saw their endorsement deals expire this past fall, without an effort from Adidas to re-sign them.

Additionally, with the upcoming launch of Donovan Mitchell’s shoe, along with ongoing signature shoes for Harden, Damian Lillard and Derrick Rose, and a hefty endorsement deal for Kristaps Porzingis, the brand already has tens of millions invested in just a handful of players.

Still, everyone at Adidas gushes over Williamson and the closeness of his family, with whom they’ve built a strong relationship over the years.

“He’s a great, great kid,” one brand source said of Williamson. “And he’s locked in on being a great player.”

Beyond the two brands with which Williamson is most familiar, there’s added competition from Puma and New Balance, both of which have re-entered the basketball sneaker market after long absences.

Puma signed 10 players this season for its re-entry, led by a handful of promising rookies and four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins.

New Balance agreed to terms on a shoe deal with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard in the fall and is just now beginning to market the All-NBA player. He has been wearing the new OMN1S sneaker since the All-Star break, though it won’t launch at retail until later this fall. The company’s only other basketball athlete under contract is Syracuse decommit Darius Bazley, who has spent what would’ve been his freshman season working out and interning at the New Balance headquarters in Boston, before entering the 2019 draft.

With the eventual end of the one-and-done era, as the NBA is expected to allow high school players directly into the league as soon as the 2022 draft, Williamson could prove to be one of the last lightning-in-a-bottle NCAA superstars entering the NBA with a global social media profile. That has undeniable appeal for a re-emerging brand like Puma or New Balance.

“What Michael did for Nike, Zion could do for somebody new,” Vaccaro said. “What Steph Curry did for Under Armour — they weren’t new, but they weren’t there … I would find a new way to make him America’s child. I just think America loves Zion Williamson.”

Among other companies, Under Armour is expected to be more conservative with a potential offer. Having signed Embiid to the highest annual shoe deal for his position, the brand is looking to build out the All-Star starting center’s apparel business this season, and his potential signature shoe in the future. They’ve also recently ramped up resources for Stephen Curry’s overall business, adding staffing to support efforts to grow the two-time MVP’s presence across Asia.

In China, sportswear brand Anta has been enjoying a great run with Curry’s All-Star teammate Klay Thompson. Currently under a 10-year extension that could be worth up to $80 million, Thompson has been thrilled with the partnership. It has not only been lucrative, but also expanded his profile abroad.

Signing Williamson would be a sharp departure from Anta’s longstanding China-focused athlete strategy. Chinese brands have typically signed older players who have already achieved All-Star or championship status in the league, veterans whom fans are familiar with and follow. According to sources, Williamson would be the exact player they’d love to sign for an opposite, new strategy: breaking through in the U.S.

With Williamson’s deal expected to be wrapped up relatively quickly, brands looking to court him have already been hard at work on the presentations they plan to make to him and his family in the coming weeks. Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepfather, has called Vaccaro with “logical questions” over the years, as the family navigated through a winding web of major decisions in store.

“[Anderson] has never given me a feeling that I’ve gotten from other parents of kids, where he didn’t necessarily know what was about to happen — when you see a dollar sign and you see numbers that are off the wall,” Vaccaro said. “We’re not talking about 100 dollars, we’re talking about 100 million dollars.”

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