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Inside the chase for the NBA sneaker market's biggest free agent: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves a signature sneaker in a bad basketball market.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The value of the basketball sneaker has decreased over the last few years. Lifestyle and performance wear values have shifted into more casual runner looks rather than basketball silhouettes. Yet even still, brands are chasing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the hopes of signing him and delivering a signature shoe under the his up-and-coming name.

An Antetokounmpo shoe still holds value for different brands. Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and Li-Ning are all in the mix for his services, according to ESPN’s Nick DePaula. Antetokounmpo is set to go from being a relatively unknown player at the beginning of his career with a $25,000 sneaker contract with Nike, to becoming one of the highest valued athletes in the league after he chooses a brand for his next shoe deal.

And brands are already starting to go hard after him. Li-Ning has an aggressive offer for Antetokounmpo, according to DePaula. Adidas backed up a truck filled with their best boost sneakers and they’re expected to make an aggressive bid for the newly minted superstar’s services.

Meanwhile, Nike is bent on keeping him on their roster with the promise of him being just their 22nd athlete to ever have a signature shoe.

A signature shoe deal will also bring an increase of personal branding opportunities with whatever brand he chooses to sign with, according to DePaula. We’re going to see logos, marketing campaigns, and plenty of commercials with the Antetokounmpo’s name behind it.

Basketball sneakers aren’t in fashion anymore — it’s been that way for years now. But an athlete of this stature is important for brands to have. Here’s why.

Giannis is special because he does the things others can’t

Antetokounmpo might be the next face of the NBA, plain and simple. He was the fifth NBA player ever to lead his team in five major stat categories and the first ever to finish in the top 20 in every stat category. And he’s doing this at just 22 years old — he hasn’t even hit his prime yet.


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Antetokounmpo makes the most arduous tasks on the basketball court look pedestrian. On one play, he can shift from being the lead ball handler to the big man and slither down the lane for a finish. He can block shots from wherever on the court simply because of his wingspan. And he can do this:

“He has a unique skill set. Based on that skill set you see a number of plays that show up in highlight packages on SportsCenter, on various social media channels. That brings his style of play out more than everyday playing of basketball,” Courtney Brunious, associate director of USC Marshall's Sports Business Institute, told SB Nation.

He’s carved out a space among the NBA’s elite at such a young age and has plenty of room to grow. That’s an important factor brands have to think about. There are two types of athletes they look for: Those that are rising stars and those that have already risen and are in the midst of their primes.

Kevin Durant in 2014 when he was being courted by Under Armour was the latter. Kristaps Porzingis signing with Adidas in 2016 is the former. Antetokounmpo presents a rare chance to have both.

But if his shoes won’t sell, what is the point in having him?

Performance basketball shoes aren’t in fashion right now. As the times have changed, so have tastes. Gone are the days where signature basketball sneakers and retroed Jordans ruled the day — now, casual workout and running shoes are what people want to wear. And it might not change anytime soon.

That leaves Antetokounmpo is a peculiar place. He wants a signature shoe, and whatever brand signs him will give him one. The shoe will likely come as soon as next season, according to DePaula’s reporting. So what’s the incentive in doing that for a brand?

There’s no obvious catalyst that can shift performance basketball back into style right now, but this is a trend. Trends always flip, even if it takes time for it to happen. This one will probably do the same.

“Things always come back,” Matt Powell, a market analyst for the NPD group, told SB Nation. “I’ve been covering this industry for decades and things always go in and out of fashion. But I don’t see it coming back as fashion in the near term. But brands need athletes playing at a high level to endorse their product. That goes without saying.”

People like to connect to their favorite stars, one way or another. Whatever brand Antetokounmpo signs with holds the key to that connection. Their products will appear in nationally televised basketball games, playoff appearances, and commercials. Plus, Antetokounmpo already has an established international fan base, making his brand even more accessible than usual.

What a Giannis Antetokounmpo marketing campaign could look like

Whatever brand he signs with already has plenty to work with. When Antetokounmpo entered the league, he was stuff of legend. A 6’11 point guard playing in quiet gyms in Greece on his way to being a first-round pick? Nah, fam. You’ve got to be kidding.

It turns out it was true. And a story surrounding that alone is sure to turn some heads. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and Antetokounmpo’s still isn’t finished.

Sure, he plays in a smaller market in Milwaukee, but social media and the internet nullify that weakness. A quick Google search shows you everything you need to know about Giannis Antetokounmpo, his story, and his reaction to the first “smothie” he ever had.

He’s a 6’11 dunk machine with a fierce nickname to boot, but he’s still incredibly relatable as an athlete. I mean, he loves Ellen Degeneres and Justin Bieber — what’s more human than that? Plus, he’s got incredible dad jokes. (Via Stephen Watson)

“When you have a personality that is welcoming, it’s a little bit easier to make a connection with the fan,” Brunious said. “That makes a big difference on how brands sell their athletes.”

Performing on the court is fine and well, but signature shoe athletes have to be able to sell a product behind their name. Lots of NBA players are very good at basketball — only a few can market themselves in a way that sells sneakers and keeps them relatable.

What Antetokounmpo brings to the table is rare. He’s great at basketball, is very relatable already, very young, and already established as an All-Star.

That’s how he became an All-Star starter last season in his first appearance in the game ever and it’s how he’s going to sell shoes. Whatever brand he chooses to sign with is already off to a great start.