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When the NBA unveils the winner of its draft lottery on Tuesday night, Zion Williamson will have more at stake than merely finding out where he’ll begin his pro career.
Which team lands the No. 1 overall pick could also have a major impact on Zion’s endorsement potential as a rookie.
The New York Knicks winning the opportunity to select Zion would be a dream financial scenario for him, sports business experts told Yahoo Sports. The former Duke star would be going to the nation’s biggest media market in hopes of reviving a historic yet success-starved franchise, an ideal setup that could only boost Zion’s leverage in negotiations with shoe-apparel companies and other corporations.
“It would be one of the greatest marketing opportunities, ever,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the famed former marketing executive with Nike, Adidas and Reebok. “Zion is going to be marketable wherever he goes, but with the right situation, he’ll pull in endorsements that I don’t think any other rookie has ever gotten. An endorser can’t do in Phoenix what they can do in New York or Los Angeles.”
Having finished the regular season with a league-worst 17-65 record, the Knicks have as much hope as any of the NBA’s 14 lottery-eligible teams of the ping-pong balls falling their way. They have a 14 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, the same odds as Phoenix and Cleveland and slightly better than Chicago, Atlanta and Washington.
If the Knicks secure the No. 1 pick, Vaccaro believes that could intensify the bidding war for Williamson among shoe companies and make his eventual rookie deal as much as 25 percent richer than it otherwise would have been. That’s no small change considering the expectation in sports business circles is that Zion will approach or even exceed the record $90 million rookie deal LeBron James signed with Nike in 2003.
Given the size of the New York market, the glut of corporations based there and the coverage from major media outlets he’ll receive there, Zion would have a better chance to land some early endorsements outside the traditional basketball realm if he plays there. You could see Zion pitching anything from cars, to suits, to tech startups, to sodas, according to Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University.
“I think he could do phenomenally well in New York,” Conrad said. “You think about the buzz of Patrick Ewing years ago, and that was nothing compared to what it would be like if Zion comes to New York. The allure of being in New York could open up opportunities that he wouldn’t have in other places.”
It’s a testament to Williamson’s prodigious talent and unusual marketing clout that corporations would be willing to bank on him before he proves himself in the NBA. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound teenager has long attracted attention because he’s different, the rare athlete with the size of an NFL defensive end and the footwork, agility and explosiveness of an NBA-bound small forward.
By Zion’s sophomore season at Spartanburg Day school in South Carolina, standing-room-only crowds were the norm at all his games. YouTube videos of his high school highlights amassed millions of clicks apiece and his Instagram following had ballooned to nearly 2 million by the time he began college.
When Zion arrived at Duke last fall, he evolved from projected lottery pick to runaway favorite to be taken No. 1 overall by averaging 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while displaying dazzling athleticism for his size. He also produced many of this past season’s most viral moments, from dunks from the foul line, to off-the-backboard alley-oop passes, to seemingly unfathomable blocked shots.
Starring for one of college basketball’s most visible programs helped Zion boost his popularity to the point that he became the rare college athlete recognizable by just his first name.
Duke had five of the top six highest-rated games on ESPN during the 2018-19 college hoops season, including the most watched weeknight game in ESPN history, when Zion’s shoe exploded. Celebrities such as Barack Obama, Floyd Mayweather and Jay-Z came to see Zion play and tickets for marquee Duke games were going for thousands of dollars on the secondary market.
Asked if they can remember an NBA prospect with more mass appeal than Zion, sports business experts were left scratching their heads. Some mentioned LeBron. Others went even further back in history.
“I guess you go back to Shaq, maybe?” Bob Dorfman, executive director of San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising, said in February. “But more recently, I can’t think of anybody. I haven’t seen anybody have as much attention surrounding him in recent years.”
How important it is for Zion to start his career with an iconic team in a major market is a subject of some debate.
To Dorfman, Zion is already popular enough that geography and market size won’t matter. Dorfman believes Zion will have the same endorsement opportunities wherever he’s drafted because of the proliferation of national TV games, the NBA’s strong focus on promoting its stars and his ability to reach fans all over the world via social media.
To others in Dorfman’s field, the marriage of a supersized personality like Zion and a market like New York or Los Angeles is drool-worthy. They agree that established stars in smaller markets have landed major endorsements, but they argue it will happen faster for Zion if he leads the Knicks back to relevance than it would if he does the same in Phoenix or Minnesota.
One of agent Mayar Zokaei’s clients is Mitchell Robinson, a 2018 second-round pick of the Knicks who averaged a promising 7.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks as a rookie. Zokaei helped the 7-footer land a Nike deal last January, something that Zokaei doubts would have happened in a smaller market.
Earlier this offseason, Robinson made an appearance at the NBA store on 5th Avenue in New York. To Zokaei’s surprise and delight, eight major media outlets were there to cover it and the interviews lasted longer than the actual appearance itself
“Do you think that same thing is going to happen if a guy makes an appearance at Foot Locker in Minnesota?” Zokaei said. “Once you’ve established yourself in the league as an All-Star and an all-NBA player, it doesn’t matter where you play, but I think initially it does.”
Sometimes playing in a major city like New York or Los Angeles can also create organic marketing opportunities as well.
“Just imagine the type of coverage he’d get if he goes to a restaurant or a club or a party or an opening to a film,” said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “Those are just opportunities that you aren’t going to have in a smaller market. He can still have an impact. He can still be marketable. But if he’s somewhere like New York, I think it’s magnified.”
From a marketing perspective, the most important objective for Zion over the next few months is to generate competition among shoe-apparel companies bidding for his services. Adidas and Nike are the two obvious suitors, long shots Under Armour, Puma and New Balance could get involved if they can scrounge up enough money and Chinese brand Anta is a deep-pocketed wild card.
Besides that, Zion and his inner circle must decide what other endorsement opportunities are worth pursuing. The key will be capitalizing on his immense popularity coming out of college without reaching oversaturation and facing blowback if his rookie season does not meet expectations.
In an April news conference after winning college basketball’s national player of the year award, Zion fielded a question from a reporter curious which NBA team he hoped would draft him. The Duke star’s response was diplomatic.
“Whatever NBA team I land on, that's the team I want to play for,” he said.
From a basketball perspective, maybe. From an endorsement perspective, New York is likely where Zion should want to be.
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