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It’s not unfair to say that Jordan Brand was a dark horse in the race for Zion Williamson’s signature. It was widely expected that Williamson would sign an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand parent company Nike, the brand he wore in college, or perhaps go with a total outsider that would offer him a blank check. Li-Ning, for example, was rumored to have offered him more than $100 million, where he most likely would have replaced the recently-retired Dwyane Wade as the face of the brand.
But instead he chose to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Michael Jordan. Williamson's endorsement deal is reported to be the biggest in rookie history, eclipsing even LeBron James’ seven-year $87 million Nike deal signed in 2003 (although other sources claim Williamson's deal is worth $75 million over seven years, rather than five). Whatever the numbers, this deal presents an opportunity for Jordan Brand to reinvent its performance basketball category, which has lagged behind Nike's main basketball line for years.
While the Jumpman’s influence in basketball is undisputed and Jordan retros remain some of the most coveted sneakers on the market, the brand doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to signature athletes in the modern era, having largely played second fiddle to Nike.
The Jordan kicks of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook — all great players — have failed to stack up against Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant's footwear. At the height of basketball sneaker popularity, Kobe and LeBron signature models routinely sold for a huge price premium on the aftermarket. The same can’t be said for many of Jordan Brand’s recent performance models. Of course, the resell market isn't the be-all-end-all when it comes to a shoe's popularity, but it is a good indicator.
Williamson could help Jordan Brand change that. The rookie helped drive the second-highest NCAA tournament TV ratings since 1991, and his NBA summer league debut for New Orleans in Las Vegas sold out, giving the game the feeling of an NBA All-Star event rather than a meaningless preseason game. Five of ESPN’s six most-watched college basketball games featured Williamson’s Duke Blue Devils, and when the player blew out his shoe against UNC, Nike flew a team to Durham, North Carolina to figure out what went wrong before sending the same team to China to make a stronger, more durable shoe. All of this before Williamson's official NBA debut.
The wow factor his 6-foot 7-inch, 285-pound frame evokes, his high-flying athleticism, his WTF moments, his confidence, and the storytelling potential of a 19-year-old kid who was too powerful for his own shoes have something Jordan-esque about them. Even if he never reaches the same heights as the GOAT, and it's not expected he will, there are enough parallels to think Williamson could usher in a new age for Jordan Brand.
The hype around Williamson is unprecedented, amplified as it is in the age of social media and viral news. It also offers an opportunity for Jordan Brand to get back to making performance basketball sneakers that excite consumers after years of missing out on marketable, Jordan-like players to other brands (namely parent Nike).
With Williamson, Jordan Brand finally has its game-changer. It would be foolish not to take advantage of the young star’s talent and marketability, and build its performance category around the 19-year-old. All eyes in the NBA are on Zion, and, for the first time in years, Jordan Brand.