The five-star stud shooting guard from Ontario has just announced an NIL partnership with community-oriented sneaker startup SoleSavy.
In 1985, Coach Eddie Sutton signed on at the University of Kentucky and instantly made the storied hoops powerhouse a Nike school. This move marked a change in the guard as Converse and Adidas had long owned the NCAA’s blue bloods. With Sutton, Nike introduced the Dunk across colleges, changing the attitude and aesthetic of amateur hoops ever since.
Years later in 1996, sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro signed a 17-year-old from Philadelphia named Kobe Bryant, making him a millionaire months before his name was called on Draft Day. This signing added security to Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, and other prep-to-pro prodigies who were already rich before even lacing up in an NBA game.
The high school hooper who reclassified and enrolled early at Kentucky shares plenty of similarities with the names mentioned above. Like Pralica, he’s a proud product of Canada. Like Kobe, he ascended from unranked underclassmen to top-ranked phenom.
And lastly, like Sutton, he hopes to put his footprint on the Wildcats storied sneaker history.
As a member of SoleSavy, he’ll have help.
From Ontario to Online
Pralica’s startup has carved a lane in the exploding industry that is footwear, focusing on community over clout. By signing the 18-year-old Ontarian, SoleSavy looks to drive a deeper connection with the new era of sneakerhead through person-to-person interaction, storytelling, and appreciation for footwear that goes beyond price tag and hype.
“Our audience right now skews a little bit older,” Pralica told Boardroom. “There’s a new generation and we wanted to find someone with a younger demo in the NIL space that we could partner with to bring the audience in. We want to keep the culture about shoes.”
When considering that demo, a student-athlete made sense.
Most college kids — to now include Sharpe — don’t have the time to spend a Friday night camping out for a Saturday morning sneaker release. Better yet, they don’t possess the coin to pay resale as aftermarket pairs are pushed later that launch day.
“Their disposable income level is not there to spend $1,000 on shoes,” notes Pralica on not just the general public, but collegiate sneakerheads specifically. “Your success is at the hands of an algorithm. There’s a feeling of hopelessness around the industry right now. We’re leveling the playing field because I’d rather keep it in the ecosystem of the people in the culture.”
Being a part of that culture speaks to Sharpe.
“I’ve always loved sneakers and they play such a big role in my life on and off the court,” Sharpe said in a statement for Boardroom. “Working with SoleSavy was a natural fit. We’ve got some stuff up our sleeve for sure.”
As Pralica hints, this includes integration, storytelling, content, and maybe even special edition sneakers.
While the five-star standout has already done deals with Porsche Louisville and JD Sports Canada, this name, image, and likeness deal appears even more major in regard to engagement and scale.
“He’s a sneakerhead and that’s why I think he came to us for his first long-term deal,” says Pralica.
Represented by The Crossover Group, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard will have the chance to talk, trade, and chase sneakers with a SoleSavy community that spans both hemispheres.
“Community is a big piece of who we are as a company,” Pralica says. “We’re getting him integrated into our Slack community — our Canadian one specifically — because his home is in Ontario and we want him to absorb that culture, those members, and their experiences.”
The Future of NIL
For those of us not rated on Rivals or running our own enterprise, one major question regarding NIL deals looms:
How the heck does it actually happen, and how does an athlete make the most of it?
“It’s no different than any other type of agreement between two parties,” explains Pralica. “What is he trying to achieve from his personal brand, what are we trying to do as a business and how do those two worlds come together for his audiences? For us, content and storytelling are important and we’re going to tell our story through his eyes and his experiences.”
On the court and in the classroom in Lexington, Sharpe will exist as a high-profile ambassador for SoleSavy while connecting with their global community through content on their app and conversations through their member Slack channel.
In a world where sneakers have come to be treated increasingly like portfolio assets, purchased often to hoard and resell, Sharpe’s lifestyle as a college athlete plays well to the essence of better times in footwear when people bought shoes not only to wear them but to express themselves.
Better yet, wearing a fresh pair of shoes could cause the “where’d you get those?” conversations Bobbito Garcia once wrote about. This bodes true for Sharpe whether when walking to Rupp Arena or chatting on SoleSavy’s Slack.
Sneakers are, ideally, an inroad to friendships and inclusivity.
“The product of our business is not sneakers, it’s people,” states Pralica. “It’s about the people who wear the shoes, love them and drive that passion. They don’t have to buy a sneaker to value SoleSavy, they can read our content, watch our videos and talk to people and that’s what community is all about.”
Pralica hints that SoleSavy is in the process of making their own built-from-scratch sneaker specifically for their community members. Not only will Sharpe have the chance to wear a pair when arriving at a big game; he may also have the chance to collaborate on or design a colorway for the community as well.
Like many fans of college sports and as an entrepreneur himself, Pralica sees the booming NIL space as a longtime coming.
“I really believe in empowering the college athlete,” Pralica says. “Whether it’s an athlete or a creator, your name, your brand, and what you’re creating is a reflection of yourself. If you are generating revenue or business for another organization, you should be rewarded for that.”
Much like Kentucky changed the game of college hoops through their Nike deal and the Dunk, and eerily similar to how Sonny Vaccaro turned a teenage Kobe Bryant from prep prodigy to frontman for Adidas, Dejan Pralica and his team at SoleSavy have a chance to usher in a new era of endorsement through their NIL deal with Shaedon Sharpe.
Don’t be surprised if the bigger brands begin to follow suit.
“I do expect sneaker brands to start finding them younger and making more short-term bets to build that relationship and grow with those athletes,” closes Pralica. “People will follow them along and build that trust. If you can be there early in that journey? That brand recognition is key and I think bigger brands will start doing that.”