Why you should care
Because basketball shoes are much more than just basketball shoes.
It starts with a simple jab and step, followed by a crossover, a sudden stop and the quick release, every orchestrated move culminating in the lyrical swish for which Stephen Curry has become infamous. With the championship Golden State Warriors on a record winning streak, any discussion about today’s NBA leads back to Curry’s signature jump shot. But while everyone’s looking at his hands, it’s what’s on his feet that may have an even greater legacy.
Under Armour’s basketball shoe sales grew 753 percent in a single quarter after the Curry One hit shelves.
Earlier this week, LeBron James made headlines when Nike signed him to a lifetime deal. But the advertising partnership was stale news even before the ink dried. While Air Jordans turned Nike into a dynasty the same way Michael Jordan did the Chicago Bulls, in this technological age where companies rise over night, it’s not unreasonable to think that now the baby-faced assassin might do the same for Under Armour, says Al Lieberman, a sports business professor at New York University.
The NBA’s brand influence is unique (you don’t see the same excitement over Odell Beckham Jr. gloves). High-tops have come to represent specific eras of the game and emulate character, whether a young baller wants to invoke Jordan’s mid-range fade-away or Shaq’s unstoppable postgame. Because basketball shoes aren’t limited to the court and can be worn on the playground or at the mall, they’ve managed to wedge themselves into mainstream fashion and create a sneaker culture that’s stronger than ever. Curry is the next wave in a league where three-pointers and assists are the new superman dunk. But what makes Curry’s brand potentially bigger than perhaps Jordan and James is personality. Short, with only average athleticism, he’s always been the underdog, which plays into the unconscious idea that under the right circumstances or with just the right kicks anyone could be the next Curry. Remember Like Mike, a movie about a teenager who finds Jordan’s old sneakers and when walking in his shoes can dunk on pros? “We want people to say, ‘He’s wearing Jordans. He’s probably got game,’ ” says Judd Hendrix, a San Francisco software engineer who says he’s bought 15 pairs of Jordans in his lifetime.
Nike (which didn’t immediately respond to calls) opted not to renew Curry’s contract when it came up two years ago — right before his title-winning MVP performance. “You make a decision on an athlete and then keep your fingers crossed,” says Lieberman. Now, Under Armour (which we couldn’t reach either) has Curry through 2024, with CEO Kevin Plank publicly saying he wants to create a “billion-dollar basketball business” around the diminutive point guard.
For now, Nike still holds 95 percent of the $5.2 billion basketball shoe market, and Lieberman is skeptical that one athlete is enough to shift the balance of power. But if Netflix and Uber have taught us anything, it’s not to dismiss an underdog. Before Jordan, basketball shoes held little social significance and Nike was not the brand icon it is now. Upset anyone?