Imagine a sneaker commercial featuring Zion Williamson that goes something like this.
The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson is in a gym wearing basketball shorts and a jersey. He is surrounded by a half dozen sneaker technicians in fresh white lab coats. He attempts dunk after dunk, but blows through a different pair of sneakers on each attempt, his foot exploding through the faulty shoes as he expresses growing frustration each time.
Eventually, he’s given the perfect pair and soars above the rim for a draw-dropping dunk in which he looks down at the rim before he flushes the ball through the basket. Once he lands, he flashes his trademark big smile and says, “This is the perfect sneaker for me.”
“We finally developed the Zion Williamson X-50 Super Air,” says the stentorian voice on the commercial. “Now available for superstars like you.”
As Williamson heads toward the inevitable sneaker deal this spring, a future along these lines awaits him. And given that he just did in fact blow through a Nike PG 2.5 sneaker in Wednesday’s game against North Carolina, resulting in a Grade 1 knee sprain that has him listed as day-to-day, the bidding war over his sneaker contract is only likely to intensify.
“Nike is going to say, ‘We had to design a special sneaker for Zion Williamson because is so fantastic and if you want to be fantastic like Zion Williamson you’re going to get this sneaker, too,’” Michael Leeds, chair of the economics department at Temple University and an expert in the economics of sports, said Friday in a phone interview. “And the other people are going to say, ‘We make sneakers that don’t break.’”
He added: “Other companies see an opportunity and Nike sees a vulnerability. One side is going to try to exploit it, and the other is going to try to sort of wall it off. You’re going to see both of these happenings. I can’t put a dollar figure on it but I can tell you that I think this is going to be worth millions and millions of dollars to Zion Williamson. As long as he’s healthy, this is the best thing that could’ve happened to him. Whatever he was worth, and he was worth a lot to a sneaker company, this is just adding zeroes on the end.”
It’s too early to know what Williamson’s sneaker contract will be worth, but he comes with a built-in audience that includes 2.3 million Instagram followers and 227,000 Twitter followers. Various industry experts said his deal could be worth $50-$100 million.
“That’s the number it should be, I don’t know,” said grassroots sneaker guru Sonny Vaccaro, who signed both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to sneaker deals, and was involved in LeBron James’ negotiations as well.
“If Duke wins the national championship and he becomes this mega-thing, he is the star on TV now. It’s a varied number right now and that’s my truthful answer. There are a lot of variables.”
Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising added: “In 2007, Kevin Durant got $60 million over seven years with a $12 million signing bonus. Assuming he’s healthy and helps Duke go far in the NCAA Tournament, Zion could get $100 million.”
There are already odds on what company will sign Williamson with Adidas (5/4) leading Nike (3/2), according to BetOnline.ag. Puma (9/2), New Balance (16/1), Under Armour (16/1) and Big Baller (100/1) follow.
“I think its safe to say every shoe company will be offering him a deal,” one former sneaker industry source said.
Puma, which signed last year’s No. 1 NBA Draft pick Deandre Ayton, already took an early jab at Nike on Wednesday night when Williamson was injured. They tweeted out, “Wouldn’t have happened in the Pumas,” and then deleted the Tweet.
The way Leeds sees it, Nike can turn what seems like a negative into a positive.
“In a way, if Nike plays this correctly they can turn what initially looks like a disaster into an opportunity,” Leeds said. “It’s the old Oscar Wilde quote, the only worse thing than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Vaccaro agrees that Nike will go even harder after Williamson now, if that’s possible.
“They’re going to do everything to cover up [the faulty sneaker] and they may do whatever they feel they have to do financially,” he said. “I don’t think Zion’s family will allow this to interfere with the market value of this particular kid. They are Nike.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said he can also imagine ways in which Nike could turn this into an advertisement.
“This adds to the legend of Zion,” Fraschilla said. “He’s so strong, he blew out a pair of shoes on a simple cut. Hopefully, he’s not seriously hurt but if he’s not seriously hurt this could be one of the great marketing ploys that Nike has come into because he’s like Zeus. He makes LeBron in high school look small.”
He added: “He’s really the first guy since LeBron that you almost absolutely know is going to sell shoes for whichever company he signs with. And to me, based on the marketing genius of Nike through the years it just seems logical that they’re not going to let him get out of the Nike family.”
In the recent NBA All-Star Game, half of the 26 players wore Nike sneakers, with another five wearing the Jordan Brand. Three wore Adidas, two Under Armour and one player each wore New Balance, Anta and the Chinese apparel company Li-Ning.
Of course, other companies will put up a fight and argue that Nike has already failed Williamson.
Those other companies can also offer Williamson a signature shoe, while it’s unclear if Williamson would have his own shoe or would just join the Nike or Brand Jordan brands.
“If a lesser company doesn’t make the offer of a signature shoe, then they shouldn’t even get into it,” Vaccaro said. “It certainly was something that was important to Michael Jordan 40 years ago. It has to be a signature shoe, it has to be.”
He said it might be harder for Nike to offer a signature shoe because they already have so many stars in their stable who don’t have them.
“It’s hard for Nike to do it because they have the greatest players in the world wearing the shoe right now,” he said. “Russell [Westbrook] is still wearing Brand Jordan if I’m correct. It’s the Westbrook shoe but it’s under Brand Jordan.”
One thing seems clear, Williamson is a unique talent, and he’s now in an even more commanding position than he was at the beginning of this week.