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The Business Behind the Nike LeBron 20

New shoe, new look. Boardroom explores why King James and the Swoosh are taking a sharp left on 2022’s milestone model.

This summer, LeBron James was afforded a luxury rarely experienced across his NBA career: rest.

After an unprecedented run that included eight straight trips to the NBA Finals, four NBA championships, and two Olympic gold medals, LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers missed the 2022 NBA Playoffs. The King enjoyed a few weeks as a spectator before he was back in the lab, working with Chris Brickley in New York.

Doing drills and debuting his all-new Nike LeBron 20 shoes, James reminded everyone he can break the Internet even on his off days. The below-ankle pink pair instantly captivated an online audience as it was brought back to life in front of fans at a dominant Drew League appearance.

Taking over the Adidas-sponsored event, LeBron dropped 42 points and once again added intrigue to his historic signature sneaker line.

Since then, the LeBron 20 has remained the talk of footwear from a performance perspective, popping up on the feet of his increasingly famous sons while being released somewhat randomly last weekend without the full-on brand-backed rollout we come to expect from the most-anticipated silhouettes.

In celebrating two decades of performance footwear, the Nike LeBron 20 does not follow the same marketing formula as its predecessors — nor does it look very much like them.

So, why do the King’s new kicks look the way they do, and what do they signal for the legend and his sponsor?

Boardroom breaks down the most surprising sneaker of the summer as the Nike LeBron 20 embarks on an autumn arrival.

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Crowned Royalty

In February 2002, LeBron James became a national name thanks to a Sports Illustrated cover story that spotlighted the then-teenage phenom. As just a junior in high school, the St. Vincent-St. Mary standout sped over to the tattoo shop, inking the cover’s “Chosen One” headline across his back.

LeBron James at the Great Western Forum to film a commercial after two exhibition games in Los Angeles. (Steve Grayson/WireImage)

Less than 18 months later, Nike inked the eventual No. 1 draft pick to a shoe deal worth nearly $100 million.

Outmaneuvering lucrative bids by the likes of Adidas and Reebok, Phil Knight famously flew out LeBron’s mother, Gloria, to gain her good graces while also giving LeBron’s friend — a young Maverick Carter — his first sports marketing internship.

All the while, Nike’s top talent in design was working on the newly-crowned King’s first signature sneaker. The Nike Air Zoom Generation, inspired by Bron’s infamous Hummer H2, was led by Aaron Cooper with input from Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar of respective Air Jordan and Air Penny fame.

After the spring signing, LeBron’s line was officially at retail, hitting stores that fall for $110 upon his NBA debut.

A new Nike LeBron is typically released at retail in October or November every season. Later designed by the likes of Ken Link and Jason Petrie, the King’s footwear franchise has steadily increased in cost, often taking on the task of showcasing the brand’s top technical innovations as a means to set the mark at retail, usually creating a halo effect for other new Nike models.

Because of LeBron’s big build and big-budget contract, his shoes have often been big, too. For years, both the ounces and the consumer dollars associated with his signature models made them unapproachable to many.

But with the streamlined and simple Nike LeBron 20, perhaps the Swoosh is signaling a new era.

Changing Times

Historically, the Nike LeBron signature series has been a means to introduce the market’s expensive innovation. A quick refresher:

  • In 2009, the Nike Air Max LeBron 7 revamped full-length visible cushioning in a manner that revitalized Air Max technology in the brand altogether and reset the price point for its cushioning. Thanks to the success of the LeBron 7, Air Max models and makeovers fetched $160 on shelves when toting the tech heel to toe.
  • In 2012, the Nike LeBron X brought Nike+ tracking technology to basketball.
  • Last season, the Nike LeBron 19 made Air Max more bulbous than ever, amplifying it in cartoon fashion straight out of LBJ’s Space Jam reboot. Over the course of the 2021-22 NBA campaign, LeBron often ditched his $200 high-top for his economy-priced diffusion line.
  • The Nike LeBron Ambassador 13 — a low-top model marketed mostly to an overseas audience — quickly became Bron’s go-to sneaker last year despite having a more magnified model on the market.
LeBron James on the court against the Raptors on March 18, 2022 (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Generally speaking, a star of LeBron’s stature not wearing his top shoe on the court is bad for business. However, this shift in style may have less to do with the man’s brand obligations and more with his day job; since moving to LA, LeBron has leaned into low-tops and leaned out in build.

The pace of play in today’s game is much faster than that of his entrance into the NBA at age 18. In these days of pace and space, more players have to cover more ground, and they’ve never had less time to do it. With that in mind, a lighter, lower shoe sharpens LeBron’s sword, so to speak, bringing him closer to the court, more agile, and lighter on his feet than when he wears the 18-ounce LeBron 19.

The new Nike LeBron 20 sheds much of its weight by ditching visible Air. From a production standpoint, it might be cutting much of its cost, too.

Less Shoe, More Money?

In September 2012, Nike launched the LeBron X+ with an unprecedented $315 tag.

Sporting computer chip innovation that could track motion, an inline iteration without said technology ran a much-less-but-still-pricy $180. Since then, signature Nike LeBron launches have hovered around $200, often higher-cut and priced than contemporary basketball sneakers on the market.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With 2022’s Nike LeBron 20, the choice to scale down the height and cushioning had many enthusiasts assuming it would also mean a lower price. However, the unexpected retail launch of the LeBron 20 at Finish Line last weekend revealed a $200 tag.

Where low-top looks are concerned for Nike, most basketball builds by the Swoosh set below the ankle start as high as Sabrina Ionescu’s $175 Zoom GT Cut and scale down to as low as $80 for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s takedown Immortality franchise.

From a namesake standpoint, LeBron remains in a class all his own. Though the tech on his new shoe may not be as over-the-top as previous pairs, it’s on par with Kobe Bryant Protro pairs that currently canvas the league. For reference, the Nike Kobe 6 Protro previously started at an MSRP of $180, though they all typically fetch far more thanks to the Black Mamba’s singular folklore and fanfare.

Just where the Nike LeBron 20 lands in pricepoint became an interesting question. This summer, Kevin Durant’s Nike KD15 was released at retail for $150; typically, LeBron’s line is positioned as higher in cut and in cost by comparison.

This time around, the newest Durant design is notably a much closer comp to LBJ’s in regards to height and visible technology.

Recently, Nike’s performance basketball brand has arguably been undercut by the success of below-ankle diffusion designs tied to Kyrie Irving that retail between $90 to $120. From the ease of entry to the cost of production, they’re more approachable and more playable than the massive models typically made for LeBron.

All told, in a positionless era that finds the youth generation favoring low-tops, the new LeBron could have more cachet on the court than previous pairs once marketed as superior.

Additionally, the low cut and premium materials expressed on the LeBron 20 give the shoe a chance to cross over off the court.

That’s a lane the LeBron line has had trouble taking on as of late.

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More Than a Game

From a sneaker culture and market share standpoint, the Nike LeBron signature series peaked from 2009 to 2013.

The catalyst for such success was a mix of momentum tied to LeBron’s play, Nike’s creativity, and the influence of hip-hop.

Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles at Madison Square Garden, April 15, 2012 (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

On the court, King James was living up to his tattoo by taking home four MVP trophies, two NBA titles, and an Olympic gold medal in the span of just a handful of years. In Beaverton, the Swoosh was offering designs that zagged between smooth and aggressive, leaning into Air Max cushioning that was perhaps more practical on the streets than on the court.

For years, the stature and pricing of the LeBron line made it an oddity among its basketball peers. Suddenly, all those factors made models tied to King James a status symbol. All the energy was amplified by creative colorways like the “South Beach” LeBron 8, “Watch the Throne” LeBron 9, and “Championship Pack” LeBron X.

Wale at BET’s “Rip the Runway” at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, Feb. 29, 2012 (D Dipasupil/FilmMagic)

With chase came clout, influencing collectors of all origins to throw dollars at the expensive LeBron line.

Additionally, rappers like Wale taught a new audience how to wear LeBron signatures off the court, unlacing the bulky basketball shoes beneath loose designer denim. From footwear fans in Facebook groups to peers in the rap game, the masses mimicked the go-go MC’s wears while the Beaverton brand was absolutely eating at retail.

Not looking to leave any money on the table, Nike Basketball brought out more and more LeBron launches while extending the theme to every other signature line in their category.

Quickly, there was too much of a good thing. The brand’s basketball category took a backseat to sleeker running silos as far as sneaker culture was concerned.

Though the once-rising popularity around the King’s kicks made for a surge at retail, his line was still never king of the hill when it came to on-court cachet. Even amidst its peak, the LeBron series was viewed by many as a statement sneaker far too bulky to play actual basketball in.

Effectively, it had lost its luster amongst collectors and hoopers alike despite how amazing King James remained on the court.

With the new Nike LeBron 20, both the baller and the brand have a chance to course-correct.

Winning Time

Due to its lower look and zag in design, the franchise shoe has more casual crossover capability and court prowess than seen in almost a decade. New narratives are abundant in Los Angeles as No. 6 looks to reclaim his throne as far as winning is concerned, and he’ll be doing so in a shoe that’s built for the business.

By taking a brief break from the limelight and reappearing as a decided underdog in the loaded Western Conference, there’s a buzz around LeBron James heading into the 2022-23 season unlike any year before. Taking Tom Brady’s approach to upending the laws of Father Time, LeBron looks leaner and younger even when considering last season’s impressive box score numbers, igniting a fervor amongst Laker loyalists and those long down with the King.

Experts may ascertain that Bron still needs more help in LA when it comes to keeping pace with the NBA’s best teams. When it comes to plugging his new shoes, however, he’s already assembled the perfect squad.

Over the summer, sons Bronny and Bryce James both handled debut duties for new Nike LeBron 20 colorways. Playing games overseas on ESPN and appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, LeBron’s link to the youth extends through both his boys, who are building solid CVs as once-and-future stars in their own right.

As much as eyeballs watch every exchange at Lakers postgame press conferences and continue the basketball GOAT debate for time immemorial, a whole generation of fans will be watching Bron’s children compete for college scholarships and keep the father/son NBA dreams alive.

Truly, the legs and legacy of the Nike LeBron line are as agile and well-rested as they’ve ever been.

Pivoting toward today’s positionless game with an ageless appeal further energized by his rising successors, the Nike LeBron 20’s aura is awash in the new — even if its central figure is two decades deep in the professional game.

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.