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Ian Stonebrook
Written By:
Ian Stonebrook
Original Photography: Evan Pierce

In the era of the entrepreneurial athlete, Ant-Man is standing on business by doubling down on his game. Will it all culminate in building an empire with Adidas?

Months before dethroning NBA Finals favorites and being compared to Michael Jordan, a smiling Anthony Edwards visualized his skyrocketing success.

“I see myself holding my own,” Edwards told Boardroom in September. “With the performance that I plan on putting on? It’s gonna go through the roof.”

Sitting under studio lighting in his high school weight room, Edwards has been zeroed in on as the Association’s alpha dog long before he purchased a pooch named Anthony Edwards Jr.

It all aligns with a summer abroad that saw Ant-Man make his case as the best baller on Earth, upping his game in the FIBA World Cup just weeks after the ink dried on a supermax Minnesota Timberwolves contract worth up to $260 million.

A summer when Ant saw himself leap league leaders before it happened. A summer when Adidas — an international company valued at over $35 billion — decided to make the 22-year-old All-Star the face of its basketball business.

A wise bet for the German juggernaut as basketball is the business Edwards is entirely consumed by.

“I used to train a lot of kids,” Ant’s partner and business manager, Justin Holland, told Boardroom’s Rich Kleiman on Out of Office. “Basketball, that’s the main thing. The last thing I have to worry about is if he’s getting in the gym.”

“Basketball, that’s all I want to focus on,” Edwards told Boardroom’s Rich Kleiman on Out of Office. “Nothing else.”

A man of few words yet endless soundbites, Edwards’ highlights have done the talking in the 2023-24 NBA season. The rare exception is a run of viral Adidas advertisements, positioning AE as the next MJ through pan-down shots similar to the infamous “Banned” campaign.

Like Mike, it’s a business Ant is invested in. Now, he’s debuting a daring signature shoe and an aggressive advertising angle to match.

“I’m in it, all in,” Edwards said. “I don’t want to make shoes that people might want to hoop in. Nah, I want to make shoes that I know people are gonna wear.”

Here’s how Ant and his Adidas partners envision his signature business ascent.

Advertising a Dawg

If you dive deep into Anthony Edwards’ Wikipedia page, it’ll tell you that he intended to major in marketing while at UGA.

If you ask Anthony, this is a typo.

“I ain’t study no marketing,” said Edwards. “I studied basketball at Georgia.”

That’s because Ant was so good during his sole season at Georgia that he led all NCAA freshmen in scoring. While those numbers rocketed him up the Draft board, it was something else that caught the attention of the Adidas execs once he landed in the league. Edwards entered a landscape where charisma mattered as much as stats.

“Marketing is a personality business,” legendary agent David Falk told Boardroom in July. “It’s not how many points you score.”

If anyone knows the intersection between athletes and shoe sales, it’s Falk. From launching Air Jordan at Nike to taking Allen Iverson‘s talents to Reebok, he’s seen brands build folklore around unearthly athleticism and uncanny cool. And when considering basketball’s bank-breaking signature stars before him, Ant may have enough MJ and AI in him to register at retail.

Sitting somewhere on the star spectrum between Bo Jackson and A$AP Rocky, Ant’s he-man heroics, cut with charisma, make him a real one-of-one. On the court, he’s defined by an alpha dog demeanor. Off the court, he’s affable in interviews. 

If you ask Ant’s agent, he might have more personality than all those icons combined.

“I refer to him as a walking Emmy,” Bill Duffy told Boardroom. “He’s so entertaining. He’s brilliant, he’s smart, he’s witty, he’s humorous, he’s the whole package.”

It’s an authentic zag that distances him from the load-managed, media-trained types he plays against each night. These are the same personalities he competes with in games and for shoe sales.

It’s a personality put front and center in his first Adidas ad — a viral venture that sees Ant quite literally in his bag. Tossing away debut drops from Ja Morant, Luka Dončić, and LeBron James, the clip is essential Edwards: confrontational and comedic, shit-talking with a smile.

It’s also Adidas Basketball‘s most engaging social post when it comes to creating conversation. Whether one speaks English or reads subtitles, Ant’s personality is backed by metrics with high hopes of his ability to translate abroad.

“There’s very few people that reach that level of popularity and global appeal where they can really move product,” said Duffy. “He’s definitely next up. I expect this to be one of the top shoes in the world.”

Bill Duffy

Historically, Adidas has made its mark in China and neighboring nations thanks to the popularity of Tracy McGrady and Derrick Rose. Ant appears next, a notion not lost on his agent where sales are concerned.

“50% of shoes are sold in Asia,” said Duffy. “They still play ball in Asia, so they’re buying shoes for performance. It’s like it was in the US 20 years ago.”

Right on time, the AE 1 is akin to the Y2K oddities of Adidas’ past, presenting a future for the basketball category as a whole.

The Model

Truth be told, big swings like this have been missed before on athletes of the unrelatable variety or products that cut corners. 

Betting it all on Ant, they’re hoping to hit it big with not just the AE 1 but everything the Three Stripes have in store in hoops.

“We tried to push him as the face of Adidas Basketball,” said Patrick Zempolich, Footwear Designer at Adidas Basketball and the pen behind the AE 1. “He pushed us to make something that didn’t look like anything on the market.”

Even on a roster that boasts James Harden and Jerry Lorenzo, Anthony Edwards has been deemed the chosen one for the future of the brand’s basketball category.

“He’s one of the best athletes in the world, but kids feel like they can touch him,” Eric Wise, Global GM of Basketball at Adidas, told Boardroom. “He eats the snacks they eat. He speaks their language.”

Eric Wise

The fact that Edwards tests off the charts in workouts but pounds hot fries makes him different from his pro peers but relatable to teens. An approachable personality and aspirational athleticism collide on his first shoe when it comes to price and positioning.

Retailing for $120, the Adidas AE 1 is affordable in the grand scheme of signature shoes. Ja’s debut sneaker starts at $110, while the 21st namesake Nike for LeBron tips the scales at $200. While the price places the AE 1 within mass grasp, its design deviates completely.

Futuristic and tech’d out, the model’s ‘Warped Velocity’ brief brings to life a perspective unlike anything else on the court. It’s oppositional to denim in approach and economy in aesthetic. Historically, forward-thinking products have pulled buyers to adapt.

“We’re trying to create aspirational products that perform at the highest level,” Adidas Basketball’s Vice President of Design Nathan VanHook told Boardroom.

Still, at $120 and on the feet of Ant, it has a chance to connect with the masses.

“That’s the secret sauce,” said Wise. “The product has to feel aspirational and hit on all the things those kids in the gym need. But it has to stand out.”

Eric Wise

When considering the bigger brand picture, it’s also decidedly Adidas.

“That shoe feels like us,” said Wise. “We know what the marketplace is, and we don’t want our products to look like a cereal box line in a grocery store.”

Lately, basketball brands have moved units by blasting their logo across the sidewall and using cartoon colorways as a means of storytelling. With Ant and Adidas’ new direction, the design direction and on-court performance are intended to do all the talking.

“They’re going to be the hardest basketball shoe out,” said Edwards. “To ever be released.”

Ants Go Marching

For over 30 years, the ‘Be Like Mike’ mantra has transcended time, culture, and continents.

The Air Jordan empire is worth billions, distilling MJ’s moxy, accomplishments, and personality into footwear that toes the line between aspirational and accessible. It all started with betting big on a country kid and daring to be different on his first shoe.

In 2023, Adidas has an opportunity to sell personality through footwear, rewriting what it means to be brash and self-assured. The notion of connecting to kids is not lost on the signature athlete or its designer.

“I want them to feel like they can play like me,” said Edwards. “And be like me.”

“We wanted to create a confident shoe,” said Zempolich. “Something that could boost a kid’s confidence.”

Silly as it may sound, millions of kids who connected with Air Jordans in the ’80s and ’90s bought into the same hope that they could fly simply by lacing up a pair of Nikes. Those who couldn’t jump still found confidence in said sneakers, still dipping their toes in the pond of nostalgia with each retro release.

While the MJ model is one many have tried but none have duplicated, Edwards may have enough personality and potential to build his own empire at Adidas.

An empire that, if done right, can outlast his career on court.

“I’m always planning for a life after basketball for him whether he realizes that or not,” Holland told Boardroom. “At 22, if we can start thinking business? At 25, 26, 27, he should have his own businesses that can run [years later] when he’s retired.”

At this point, Edwards still hasn’t won a title or sold a shoe. The hope is that as his star ascends and Adidas builds his business, he’ll be well set up to be the man for years to come.

“We think we have the product and the athlete to cut through,” said Wise. “The team’s already working on the second one.”

Until then, there’s the first one.

In the Adidas AE 1, the 22-year-old who saw himself owning the NBA months before it happened can already see kids imitating his aura through footwear. 

If you aren’t sold on who Ant could become, he’ll remind you why you should buy into who he is.

“I’m the coolest guy in the world,” closes Edwards. “Why would you not wanna get these and feel like me?”