When LeBron James, perhaps the biggest free agent in league history, entered the summer of 2010 there was a prevailing notion that Nike, James’ shoe company, preferred he play in a major market to help grow his business.
There was even speculation that his seven-year, $90 million shoe deal, which he signed before his rookie season, incentivize him to play in a major market.
All of that was true.
His initial contract featured a clause that would pay James a $1 million annual bonus if he played in a big market, sources with knowledge of the contract told The Vertical. The bonus would've been triggered if James had landed in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston or in the Bay Area with Golden State.
But the game has changed now. Markets no longer matter for signature shoe deals. Winning matters. MVP-level play matters. James and Kevin Durant have built their brands in Cleveland and Oklahoma City, and have earned some of the most lucrative shoe deals the industry has ever seen.
“They're being paid to be superstars,” an agent told The Vertical. “Even if they played on Mars, they're still being paid to be superstars.”
The modern era of social media and more nimble brand marketing has shifted the landscape, allowing Durant to focus solely on winning during his free-agent summer.
“I'm worrying about basketball,” Durant said. “That's what it is for me. This is a basketball decision.”
Multiple sources confirmed Nike has no preference of where Durant lands and hasn’t been involved in the decision-making process.
The involvement of shoe companies in such major career decisions is often overstated; James actually surprised his designers and product team by joining the Miami Heat in 2010.
So of course, the product people at Nike have contingency colors in mind should Durant switch teams.
Nike's biggest preference for Durant is that he simply wins.
While it's true that Durant’s shoe sales have slipped over the last two years, it's unfair to place any blame on Oklahoma City as a lesser market. Injuries limited Durant to 27 games in the 2014-15 season. The KD7 shoe struggled at retail that season because when Durant did play he was wearing the KD6, a model from his MVP season the year before. It was simply a superstitious move by Durant, but it undoubtedly hurt sales of the KD7.
This past season, Durant returned to full strength and helped lead the Thunder to the Western Conference finals, falling one win short of the NBA Finals. His KD8 model struggled to sell again with several industry sources blaming the shoe's steep $180 price point in a climate in which consumers gravitated toward Stephen Curry's $130 shoe, Kyrie Irving's $120 sneaker and Damian Lillard's $105 shoe.
Last week in Austin, Texas, Durant launched his ninth signature shoe, and it’s off to a great start. The $150 gray and orange launch colorway sold out in just 24 hours, a sign that Nike nailed the delicate formula of price, technology and value. No matter where Durant ends up, Nike feels strongly about the KD9’s sales prospects.
As Durant prepares to meet with teams in free agency, he'll be thinking basketball first. The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, long considered the marketing hubs of the league, have yet to even schedule meetings with Durant, illustrating how things have changes.
Durant simply wants to win, and Nike is fully on board.
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