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Signature Theory

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Last week I wrote about the 11 Basketball Shoes to Watch for this SeasonWithin the piece, I spoke about Future Signature Lines. I have a lot more to say about the topic, so I chose to expand on it this week in what I am calling my Signature Theory.

The signature shoe has a long history in basketball. Its hard to say what is the exact first signature shoe. You could argue it was the Chuck Taylor over 100 years ago, or you could say it really started in 1984 when Nike gave Michael Jordan the first line of shoes named after an active player. No matter what you consider first, you can’t argue that the latter of the previously mentioned changed the landscape for what signature shoes would become.

When you look at the current landscape, it is hard to argue that it is a flooded market for signature shoes. Off the top of my head, I can name at least ten athletes that all have their own shoe, and I know there are more:

But lets go back to 1984 when Nike gave Michael his first shoe. At that time, they had no other signature shoes in their line. It wasn’t until ten years later in 1994 when the Air Max CB debuted that they added another signature shoe. TEN YEARS! Let that sink in for a second.

At a time when the NBA was seeing growth around the globe, the number one sporting company only grew their signature line by one. After they added that second signature they opened the floodgates, because over the next decade signature shoes would be handed out to over seven more players at The Swoosh.

Now, everyone has a signature shoe. If you are a new brand and you don’t have an athlete to build a line around, you really can’t gain any traction in the market place. That’s why you see so many companies that have a smaller footprint in the league adding players, Stephen Curry to Under Armour and Rajan Rhondo to Anta. You also see companies dropping serious marketing dollars behind a single player, Derrick Rose and adidas or Dwayne Wade at LiNing.

It hasn’t been proven that one method works better than the other. It’s always a battle as to what makes a signature shoe successful. Is it the brand pushing the player? Or is it the player building the brand? It could be argued either way. I am sure if you ask the player they would say they are building the brand, and if you ask the brand they would say they are building the player.

There is no clear answer.

What I think is most interesting right now, and as I mentioned last week, are three current players that are building themselves as a brand outside of the sneaker company that they are signed to. All three of them are signed to Nike Inc., but all of them are making a name for themselves in ad-campaigns that have little to nothing to do with The Swoosh. The three athletes are James Harden, Blake Griffin and Kyrie Irving.

I am going to focus on Griffin and Irving though, because they are stacking some serious cash from Kia Motors (Griffin) and Pepsi Inc. (Irving).

Blake has become the funny guy that does awkward commercials for a foreign car company that needed a big-name American athlete who would resonate with a younger buying force for their affordable cars. The relationship has helped both of them significantly. Kia gets the cars noticed by the targeted demographic, and Blake grows his identity dramatically by getting viewership by every home in America, even when basketball games aren’t on. That’s a big deal.

Then you have Kyrie Irving and his Pepsi deal. Pepsi created one of the most unique viral campaigns ever with Mr. Irving donning a whole lot of makeup to make himself look like about 60 years his elder, and then going and destroying people in pickup games on random courts across America. At the time of this writing, he has over 43,048,556 views on YouTube on the three chapters that have been filmed in the series. To say he is being noticed is an understatement. That doesn’t even include the night in and night out highlight reels he is included on across the nation.

He arguably has a bigger market won here, as the market can be accessed at anytime and at any place across the globe. It’s hard to build that community naturally, and Kyrie has a following that will forever be tied to these videos. He has viewers that don’t tune into any televised games.

The ladies know of Kyrie as that guy that dressed up as the old man and embarrassed unsuspecting players at random on the playground. They have no idea that he is arguably one of the best players in the NBA. You can’t replace the unknowing lady consumer. 2pac said something along the lines of, “Make songs for the ladies because the men will want what the ladies want.” He said it a little more vulgar though.

The point is that Kyrie’s stock is at an all time high and it can only get larger.

Another player whose stock is growing, and he is doing it the old fashioned way through outstanding play; is Paul George. He is currently the third highest scorer in the league and the second most efficient. Most importantly, he is on the only undefeated team in the league, the 9-0 Indiana Pacers. What makes his case as a signature athlete is that he is in a small market with a very, very loyal fan base.

The Indianapolis fans made Player Exclusive Shox for Jermaine O’Neal profitable and turned one of the most awkward-speaking elite athletes, Peyton Manning, into America’s quarterback. Paul has an outstanding opportunity to turn his current play into a huge line of product that follows him for years. His path is quite similar to Kevin Durant’s. Like Durant, Paul is more important in these smaller markets.

He means more to the people of Indianapolis because he is a representation of them.

LeBron had that at one point too, and so did Melo, but both chased the bigger stage and the bigger media market. It worked for one of them. But what is working for Paul, and more importantly the company that has invested in him, is that he has committed to that city and state for the next five years, in turn giving himself and The Swoosh exponential opportunity to grow their brands in the land that thrives off of basketball. The state is more known for loving high school and college ball, so Paul has the chance to grow his line as the most influential professional basketball player since Reggie Miller.

The one question that has to be asked about these players receiving their own line is, Is it necessary?

I say yes and no. I think James Harden can be passed over. He should become the face of the Hyperdunk and the Team basketball shoes. He is exciting and has signature attributes, but really can’t carry a line.

I think going forward, Nike Basketball is going to have a large hole to fill over the next few seasons as Kobe Bryant retires. Paul George has been known to rock Kobe product, so it would make since for him to consider a similar aesthetic. He has a huge chance to be a legit star in the NBA and can really take a signature product far.

Simply put, Blake Griffin needs a signature shoe. Out of the four people I discussed in here, he is the most important to his brand, Brand Jordan. They have had a hard time finding success in their signature lines. While I don’t think he will ever be an elite champion like Michael was, hell maybe not even like Scottie was, he is by far the most impactful highlight player the NBA has right now.

There is a lot to be said about that. Vince Carter sold a lot of shoes for Nike by solely being a highlight reel, and the Jordan Brand needs that type of player. Because outside of retro product, their on-court reputation could use a boost. And I have already made my case for Kyrie. So let me just say that if he doesn’t get a signature shoe, somebody apparently hasn’t been on YouTube.

Other posts by Brett Golliff:

Brett Golliff, footwear extraordinaire, is founder of BrettGolliff.com, contributor for Complex, and has previously designed for New Balance. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram.