It’s a great time to be a good basketball player. With the sneaker market surging, bidding wars are breaking out for NBA stars. Pulling down $30 million a year to wear free shoes isn't unheard of anymore.
Under Armour tried to woo away Kevin Durant last year, and Nike paid handsomely to keep him: $300 million over 10 years. Now Adidas is reportedly offering $200 million to put its sneakers on Houston Rockets guard James Harden, another player whose Nike deal is expiring. It’s a big-money bid from a company desperate to stay in the basketball game. "He can take the game, our brand, and the industry to new heights," Adidas spokesman Michael Ehrlich said in an e-mail.
What’s the return on that kind of spending? The executives cutting these deals don’t have a good idea, but that doesn't stop them from trying to figure it out anyway. In that spirit, we crunched last season’s NBA statistics for notable players on teams Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour to see which company is getting the most bang for its buck. Adidas and Nike declined to provide their full sponsorship rosters, so we compiled our list based on deal reporting, marketing materials, and press releases.
Nike dominated in total points, rebounds, and steals, which is fitting for a brand that holds an estimated 90 percent of the basketball shoe market1.
Those results aren’t surprising considering the sheer number of players Nike sponsors, with at least 40 well-known NBA athletes on payroll. Under Armour sponsors just nine players, and we could identify only eight sponsored by Adidas. But Nike also put up better numbers on a per-player basis, thanks in large part to a promising young talent in Cleveland named LeBron.
When it comes to the sneaker sponsorship game, it’s simply not possible to play bigger than Nike. It might, however, be possible to play smarter. And this is where things get interesting.
Many of Nike's athletes weren’t all that productive last year. Carmelo Anthony, for example, had a pretty ho-hum season on a dismal team. Paul George, a 2013 All-Star, broke his leg and got in only six games. Durant, in the first year of an opulent new contract, was also plagued by injuries and limited to 27 games. And when kids are saving up for new high-tops, are they going to care that Victor Oladipo wears the Swoosh? A deep bench, when it comes to sponsorships, gets expensive.
Adidas, however, is going for quality over quantity. That’s why it surrendered the broader NBA uniform deal to Nike after an 11-year run. Under Armour has used this strategy to great effect. Of the nine players on its bench, one of them happens to be Stephen Curry, last year’s Most Valuable Player and arguably the greatest shooter of all time.
Harden, who trailed only Curry in MVP voting last year, would be a major coup for Adidas. Not only would he bring serious stats, but his lumberjack beard and fashion cred get a lot of attention off the court. Here’s how the per-player stats would have broken down last year if Harden were wearing Adidas.
To be sure, $200 million for a sneaker deal is a ludicrous amount of money no matter the skill of the athlete. But for Adidas it’s also a value play.
The one place where Harden comes up a little short is on social media, an increasingly important metric these days for executives trying to determine the worth of a potential endorsee. Nike has until next week to respond to the Adidas bid. In the next few days, Harden would be smart to elevate his Instagram game.