Puma’s Ploy to Become Relevant in Basketball Again

BROOKLYN, NY - JUNE 18: PUMA sneakers on display at the PUMA Hoops HQ kickoff where Walt "Clyde" Frazier signs the first ever life long contract with PUMA on June 18, 2018 in Brooklyn. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for PUMA)

There were few players as dominant in college basketball this past season as Deandre Ayton, a 7-foot-1 center who played his freshman year at the University of Arizona before declaring for the NBA draft. The native of the Bahamas was an imposing force and, as such, will likely be selected as the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft, which will be held at the Barclays Center this Thursday.

It’ll be a historic moment: If he is chosen by the Phoenix Suns with the first pick, Ayton will become the fourth international player in the past six years chosen as the number one overall pick. But even if he’s chosen as the second pick, Ayton will still make history — in a shocking turn, the center spurned Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour to sign a four-year multi-million sneaker endorsement deal with Puma, a company that hasn’t been relevant in the sneaker game for decades.

When asked by Bleacher Report about the ramifications of signing with a company whose last NBA sneaker endorsement ended in arbitration (Vince Carter signed with Puma in 1998, only to back out of his contract a year later, claiming Puma failed to deliver a signature sneaker as well as a sneaker that fit properly; he had to pay $13.5 million after the arbitrator ruled Carter had indeed breached his contract), Ayton said, “That’s a problem. That’s going to catch everybody’s eyes. That’s a huge step for Puma, too.”

He wasn’t the only player to sign with Puma in the days leading up to Thursday’s draft — Marvin Bagley III, a presumed top three pick in the draft, Zhaire Smith (a potential lottery selection), and Jay Z (as creative consultant) also joined the brand. Bagley’s deal is reportedly worth $2.1 million annually, which pales in comparison to past sneaker contracts for top-three picks, but the contract is laden with incentives, further boosting its value. According to sneaker analyst Matt Powell of the NPD Group, “It will be interesting to see how Puma disrupts the game. The old endorser model is broken. Puma’s association with Jay Z may be the catalyst for change.”

Of course, Nike and Adidas combined control nearly two-thirds of the athletic footwear market in the United States, while Under Armour is the brand of choice for Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors (the Swoosh famously lost the bidding war to produce Curry’s sneaker when an exec consistently mispronounced Curry’s first name as ‘Steph-on’), so Puma’s signings aren’t going to immediately reverberate in terms of sales. Bigs typically don’t move sneakers. But still, the impact of two of the draft’s top prospects is a signal that Puma might be on the path to reestablish itself in the market it helped create in the early 1970s. As Ayton told Bleacher Report, “Puma was the best deal. To me, anybody can make your shoe. Anybody can make the best shoe for you and put the right fit in the shoe.”

Interestingly, a similar scenario is also currently being tested in tennis: Swiss newspaper Le Matin reported this past weekend that Roger Federer is in the process of leaving Nike for Uniqlo. While nothing is official — Federer addressed the report as nothing more than “rumors” (though he did confirm his contract with Nike had lapsed) — that sort of move would be nothing short of a game-changer for both companies, not to mention the general public, as more consumers are embracing sneakers as fashion statements and moving away from the Nike as the de-facto brand of choice.

More consumers are embracing sneakers as fashion statements and moving away from the Nike as the de-facto brand of choice.

When Puma first breached the NBA, sneaker endorsements were essentially unheard of. Sure, companies like Converse would advertise the athletes wearing its sneakers, but the spotlight was more on Olympians and boxers, competitors that had universal appeal. The idea of naming a sneaker after an athlete was far from a reality. But entering the NBA’s 1973 season, the company eyed Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier.

Frazier was basketball’s most visible player, and just six years removed from college, the New York Knicks guard was arguably one of the sport’s most popular players in its history. The NBA was evolving from what had been a league in which coaches dominated style of play and the athletes weren’t ashamed of their paunches; the sport was becoming more fast-paced and athletic, and as such, the players were becoming more creative on the court. The days of the NBA as a “group of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop” were numbered.

Frazier was the epitome of that shift, showcasing an effortless style, whether dribbling around the perimeter or driving to the basket, and every step he took on the court possessed a syncopated rhythm. His status was only further cemented when the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1973 NBA finals, the second (and — so far — last) NBA title in the franchise’s history, and as a catalyst for those two championships (he scored 18 points in the deciding game), Frazier seemed the perfect candidate for a sneaker brand hoping to ride basketball’s popularity.

Puma had launched in the late 1940s as a brand that largely targeting runners, but execs saw Frazier as emblematic of the company’s shift, a marketing push that appealed to basketball players on and off the court. When Frazier was first courted, he was immediately interested, especially as he’d be the only athlete at that point with a sneaker endorsement: “It was a big ego trip. I was the only guy in any sport that had a shoe named after him…the style was infinite style. The style was ageless.”

The sneaker Frazier endorsed was a modification of Puma’s Bucket, a sneaker that had debuted several years earlier and one Frazier immediately rejected as “really heavy.” He later recalled to sneaker historian Bobbito Garcia, “I told them ‘Even if you paid me, I couldn’t wear this shoe. It’s too clunky.'” Puma’s plan, which eventually resulted in a $25,000 contract and a royalty of 25 cents for each pair sold, was to give Frazier complete freedom to design his sneaker, a feat of improvisation for a person whom Esquire had named America’s best dressed jock. The result? A lightweight suede sneaker that debuted in 1973 outfitted with numerous colorways and minimal padding. Tough enough to compete with Bill Walton and Bob Lanier for 48 minutes a night, but also stylish enough to wear walking down NYC’s Fifth Avenue. “You can style and profile in this shoe as well,” Frazier said. The company’s ads showed Frazier donning a suit, a wide-brimmed hat, and his feet graced in his Clydes, accompanied by the tagline, “Straight-up cool.”

By the time Frazier retired 1980, Puma had sold more than a million pairs of the Clydes, but Frazier’s retirement coincided with the rise of leather in sneaker construction and the emergence of a new generation of basketball players, helmed by a junior wing from North Carolina. Not even the blip of Vince Carter’s signing in the late 1990s could save Puma from fading from the basketball conscious, which is why the recent announcements of Ayton, Bagley, and Jay Z are so stunning. Could Puma resurrect itself as a basketball brand? Or, similar to what happened in the 1980s, will this be yet another brief resurgence? Much will depend on how its trio of prospects perform in the 2019 NBA season and whether the sneakers — like the Clydes — manage to influence basketball players on and off the court.