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Best of the Sneaker Game Mailbag: Jaylen Brown, Paul George & Joel Embiid

Last Updated: January 21, 2024
Let’s revisit some of the best questions we’ve received from Sneaker Game readers.

The Sneaker Game is our sneaker industry newsletter packed with exclusive news and access to the athletes, designers, and executives that move the business. Every other week, Boardroom’s Nick DePaula answers your most burning questions about the indusry.

Let’s go back in the bag to revisit some of our favorite questions so far.

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We’ve seen both Puma and New Balance re-enter the hoops space and have real, tangible success in the last five years, but that’s with the infrastructure and foundation of decades of company heritage, of course. What I think Jaylen Brown was alluding to on Sneaker Shopping was the notion of launching his own brand. 

Creating and building a footwear brand from scratch is exceptionally hard. I would love to see Jaylen try it. Brown essentially played the last two NBA seasons for free, wearing a variety of Nike’s Kobe and GT Cut models on-court, with customized updates and without any deal in place. 

I estimate his market value to be in the $1.5-4 million per year range, should he sign a traditional shoe deal with an established brand. He also just locked in a $304 million extension with the Celtics, so shoe deal money might be the least of his worries going forward. For a few seasons now, he’s been pursuing and pushing his own apparel brand, 7uice.

Since the Ball brothers’ Big Baller Brand launched in 2017, players of all tiers have considered releasing their own self-published signature shoe. To staff a full team tasked with handling design, marketing, development, and the full scope of what it means to manage a sneaker brand — even if for just one single shoe potentially dubbed the 7uice Jaylen 1s — I’d estimate that yielding a $5-10 million cost, if done right. That’s before even taking into account the upfront factory sampling and production run costs to maintain an inventory pipeline for future seasons. 

It’d be a huge, huge undertaking to operate in a way that could produce staying power, which is why we’ve seen similar startup attempts in the past (Big Baller Brand, Starbury, Protege, etc.) come and go. That said, and I think this goes without saying, Jaylen is a confident dude and has the exact blend of pride, curiosity, and interest level in the industry to try and pursue a project as daunting as this. 

Brown boasts a lot of great qualities that sneaker headliners often hold. A two-time All-Star already at the age of 27, he should be a mainstay during the annual showcase game, as he continues to navigate his career while playing for a contending team. He’s also often outspoken on issues and causes he finds important, and is one of the league’s top 20 most-followed players on Instagram.

Throw in the fact that Jaylen has developed a relationship with one of the footwear industry’s more revered designers, Steven Smith, who has crafted classics with brands such as New Balance, Reebok, Nike, and Yeezy during his career that’s been runnin’ since the ’80s, and Brown seemingly has many options on the table. I’m expecting an update from Jaylen’s end as we get closer to All-Star Weekend in the new year.

This was no doubt a really tough decision by Nike. And it happened around a year ago towards the end of 2022. 

Entering last season, Paul George was coming off three consecutive seasons where he played an average of just 44 games per year and battled an ongoing stretch of injuries. The Clippers success was simultaneously reliant on both George and Kawhi Leonard’s availability, with the team missing the playoffs in 2022. 

With Ja Morant and Devin Booker already in the product pipeline to enter the signature fold in 2023 and beyond, the decision came to halt the Paul George series, as his prior signature shoe deal was set to expire in October of 2022.

Nonetheless, the PG series has routinely been one of the most-worn current Nike Basketball silhouettes, with more than 80 total players lacing up the PG 6 across each of the last NBA and WNBA seasons, according to KixStats.com.

With his prior shoe deal set to expire last fall, Nike and George eventually landed on a new long-term extension toward the end of 2022, with the understanding that the PG 6 would be his final signature shoe and he’d evolve into a featured brand ambassador role going forward.

Ever since, he’s stuck to a rotation of past PG models like the 1, 2, and 6, along with a few different Kobe models like the recent 4 and 8 Protro pairs. There were conversations around PG headlining the high-level GT Cut series down the road, and potentially even retroing a revamped version of the PG 1.

Since the extension, to his credit, PG has been both available and impactful for a Clippers team that is now a serious contender. His really well done “Podcast P” show has also provided a new lane for him to be showcasing Nike’s latest products.

At the time of the decision, George’s six signature models made him only the sixth player in Nike history to have a series extend that far while actively playing. His successful run places him alongside only LeBron, KD, Kobe, Kyrie, and Charles Barkley as the longest-standing Swoosh signature series. Although impactful Nike icons, Penny HardawayScottie PippenGary Payton, and Vince Carter each didn’t make it to a sixth model while playing. 

The PG series should be looked back at fondly for its ability to be adopted by players of all positions across all levels of hoops, while offering up clean designs at an affordable price point along the way. I also always liked how the Swooshes on his shoes faced opposite directions, as a nod to his Hall of Fame-level, two-way play on the court. 

Comped products are indeed precisely written into a player’s contract. Depending on the tier of player, some contracts include anywhere from a $10,000 budget in a merchandise allotment to as much as $200,000 in “merch.” The product prices that players spend are “at retail value.”

In looking through one former signature athlete’s contract, the player’s merch allotment broke down into two buckets: $75,000 toward product and $100,000 specifically toward one’s “Camp / Foundation / Community events.” That’s for each year of the deal.

Almost every signature athlete utilizes their product budget to buy sneakers for charitable donations. During the pandemic, we saw Luka Dončić buy and donate 100 pairs of Jordans for local Texas hospital workers from his budget. 

Brands will also “seed” specific shoes and clothes ahead of strategic launch dates that they hope the players will wear for arena arrivals or help promote on their social channels. Those pairs don’t count against their product budget. 

Typically, the merch budgets will run from September to September and don’t roll over into the next season. Years back, a friend of mine had a Nike contract with a $25,000 annual budget. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation.

Nike’s “Elite” website portal log-in for athletes would mirror the current Nike.com website, where you can place online orders with your remaining budget allowance. This is where his mom, friends, and family would log on to place their orders. 

After the season ended in the spring, he’d look to spend the remaining budget on shoes and clothes that he could give out as prizes at his annual summer camp. Each August, he’d let his high school coach go wild and order shoes and gear for current players on the team back home with the remaining budget. 

Some brands grant players ridiculously high budgets and would seem almost impossible to fully spend. However, a five-figure merch budget — or higher — is just one of the many perks layered into shoe contracts.

When Joel Embiid signed on with Under Armour in 2018, both sides had big expectations. The reigning MVP was just up I-95 from the Baltimore-based brand, and the 76ers had taken a turn from The Process toward being a perennial contending team. Joel was also a master at going viral, both on Twitter and Instagram, whenever he felt like pressing send. 

That all changed, however, shortly after he signed what was then a five-year deal that made him the highest paid sneaker endorser at the center position. Embiid’s social media presence became more sporadic and strategic. His first signature shoe launched in the Fall of 2020, which was unfortunate timing during the height of the pandemic. The shoe sold far below projections — as gyms were closed and people weren’t exactly playing basketball at the time — and the series was halted on the spot during what was a time of serious marketplace uncertainty.

Skeptics questioned the partnership from the moment of the deal’s initial announcement, wondering — as usual — if a “big man could sell shoes.” Ultimately, maybe the adage held true, but there were also other marketplace factors at play. The two sides just couldn’t find a way to maximize the alliance during what was a difficult period, as all brands saw declining sneaker sales. 

In the fourth season since the bubble debut of his signature line, Embiid has continued to wear the first and only Embiid shoe. The HOVR Havoc 4 that he briefly wore in early 2022, was actually initially the Embiid Two, but was later re-named and framed as a team shoe, stripped of its signature positioning.

Under Armour instead subtly updated the Embiid One for him, switching out the rubber outsole for a Flow traction bottom on both the white / gold and blue-based pairs. This season, Embiid appears to have touched up his kicks, specifically painting over the UA logo along the heel, now that he’s out of contract.
 
Embiid’s deal with Under Armour expired last month on Oct. 1, meaning Embiid is now a sneaker free agent. Despite clearly being one of the best players in the world, a MVP frontrunner this season and an expected Olympian next summer in Paris for Team USA, the market has been much more flat this time around.

Rumblings emerged that his eventual next deal will be announced in the coming months, potentially ahead of All-Star Weekend. His custom Size 17 shoes require a great deal of modifications for his 7-foot frame, but we should be seeing his next, new brand partnership, unveiled soon.

If you have a question you’d like to see answered in a future mailbag, send it on Twitter — @NickDePaula

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About The Author
Nick DePaula
Nick DePaula
Nick DePaula covers the footwear industry and endorsement deals surrounding the sporting landscape, with an emphasis on athlete and executive interviews. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.