LaMelo Ball (left), Breanna Stewart, and Mikey Williams are helping to lead Puma’s new era.
SNEAKERS & FASHION

The Puma Project

Since rebooting its basketball business in 2018, Puma has made strides by committing itself to being different. Let’s make sense of their progress so far along the way.

“Where other people and brands see risk, we see opportunity,” said Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing.

Three years after Puma relaunched its basketball business, the company strategy has been simple: The younger, the better. Differentiation is strength. And in keeping with that objective, the list of notable athletes Puma has signed includes LaMelo Ball, Breanna Stewart, and their latest addition, high school star Mikey Williams, three big names whose superstar paths are utterly distinct from one another.

“Every kid growing up dreams of having a shoe deal. We all wanted to be like the guys in the NBA. So, to be still in high school and be able to say I am the first to do it on this level is pretty cool,” Williams said in a statement to Boardroom. 

Williams is just the latest example of Puma’s desire to separate itself from the rest of the sneaker and apparel landscape. After an athlete signs with a brand, they typically have to work their way up to earning a signature shoe deal. This means continuing to play well on the court while also building a brand that is appealing to a company. 

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

But with Puma relaunching its basketball operations in 2018, the company didn’t have the benefit of a familiar face similar to Michael Jordan with Nike or Steph Curry with Under Armour. The absence of this meant one thing for its future athletes, opportunity. Instead of going after high-profile sneaker free agents that enter the market after their deal expires, Puma has decided to fish in a pond full of young talent. Even without basketball’s biggest, most established players under its banner — for now — the brand feels like it has an advantage over its competitors in the big picture.

“We feel like the youth are the future. Young players are exciting and they bring [that] dynamic to their game,” Petrick said. “They can really attract a large young following in a short amount of time. So for us, it just makes sense to bring on younger players to attract a younger consumer base.”

Other top basketball signees include Deandre Ayton, Skylar Diggins-Smith, RJ Barrett, Kyle Kuzma, and Michael Porter Jr.

“Personality matters to us. When we sit in a room with a player and talk about who we are and what we represent there are a lot of soft pieces that go into that. [We look into] if they are engaged, asking questions or are on their phones. There are certain cues that we get if a person is interested.”

In 2018, Ayton was the consensus No. 1 overall pick heading into the NBA Draft, so Puma’s interest in him was obvious. But it wasn’t until after spending time with him Puma knew Ayton had to be theirs. Even those who are not connected to Puma find what the brand is doing intriguing. “They are targeting a youth demographic that could become viral,” said Irwin Kishner, co-chair of the Sports Law Group at New York law firm Herrick Feinstein. “You could go with an unsigned NBA star, but it’s a different base. This is creative and an untapped space. I’m excited to see what they do.”

The Puma project isn’t limited to basketball, however. The brand has inked other top athletes like retired track and field legend Usain Bolt, Formula 1 icon Lewis Hamilton, and UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, extending the global nature of its reach.

Standing 6-foot-6 and owning a deal reportedly worth $100 million despite being just 20 years of age, LaMelo Ball is quickly emerging as one of Puma’s premier athletes after signing with the company last year in October. And as Petrick notes, he came with his own following.

The youngest of three, LaMelo and older brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo developed their own fanbases even before they reached the pros. This was in large part due to stellar play on the court, but the trio was also aided by their father, LaVar Ball, whose passion for his children playing the sport at the highest level has been as flamboyant as it is prolific.

Because LaMelo already had a signature shoe with the infamous family-owned Big Baller Brand, he wasn’t likely to be deemed eligible to play college basketball under NCAA rules two years ago; he elected to play overseas in Lithuania and Australia before declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft in April last year. After signing with Puma in October 2020, Ball went on to win 2020-2021 Kia Rookie of the Year in his debut season.

On the strength of that momentum, Puma and Ball unveiled the first edition of his signature shoe, the “MB.01,” last month. The sneakers are set to drop in December.

But just before Ball’s signing in May 2020, Puma elected to take another walk down an unbeaten path by giving rapper J. Cole a signature basketball shoe titled the “RS-Dreamer.” Cole, who was 35 at the time of the shoe’s release had not played a game of professional basketball ever. A year later that would change when the rapper played in the Basketball Africa League for the Rwanda Patriots Basketball Club. The second edition of the Dreamer released earlier this year, with the likes of Diggins-Smith, Kuzma, and Marvin Bagley II all donning the shoes. 

It wasn’t J. Cole’s Dreamer that caught the eye of Mikey Williams, though — it was Puma’s signing of his friend, LaMelo Ball. “My interest in the brand started when Puma started signing guys like Deandre Ayton and RJ Barrett, but it was when they signed Melo that I really started to think it could be an option for me down the line. I also was drawn to the use of bright colors in their products, it just fits my style.”

Like thousands of other high school athletes, Williams’ universe changed on July 1 when the NCAA approved college athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness rights. Williams was already an anomaly in the high school basketball space because of his on-the-court talent. Off the court, it is more of the same. Any brand that works with Williams gets to tap into his massive 3.5 million follower base on Instagram and 61,000 followers on Twitter.

For context, Williams’ Instagram following is seven times larger than that of Puma Basketball itself.

“There are many teenagers that would love to be in his shoes,” said Kishner. “This is a very different approach but also one that is untapped. To a large extent, this could be the perfect way for Puma to try to reinvigorate the excitement of its basketball business.”

And Williams knows his worth. “I will be able to help Puma grow in a lot of ways. First off, (like Melo) I am showing the next generation that its okay to be different and that you don’t have to do what everyone else does,” he said. “Secondly, Puma has some real hoopers on their roster and I want to be able to add to that crew. Lastly, I take pride in keeping my swag on point and Puma has some great gear that will keep me looking right!”

Whether Williams will earn a signature shoe remains to be seen; such is the case of a kid not due to graduate from Charlotte’s Vertical Academy until 2023.

But someone who is guaranteed the honor? Two-time WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Breanna Stewart, who signed with Puma in May.

“It’s a huge milestone for us and the sport to have the opportunity to sign Breanna and do a signature product with her is a big deal,” said Petrick. “It’s not lost on me that it is not just a big deal for Breanna, Puma but it’s a big deal for women in sports. We think it’s overdue. 

Stewart will be just the tenth woman with a signature shoe in the WNBA’s 25-year history. Stewart told ESPN, “For Puma to be able to put the signature element out there [and] respect me enough where they think I deserve a signature shoe, is something that is super exciting.”

The WNBA just celebrated its 25th season and it media partner, ESPN reported that regular season viewership was up 49% year-over-year. Along with this, the 2021 WNBA Playoffs were the most-viewed postseason since 2014. Stewart did not participate in the Storm’s playoff matchup due to a foot injury that kept her sidelined. Still, her talent and reach is undeniable. In the last four seasons, Stewart has led the Storm to a pair of title where she was also awarded Finals MVP. In each of the Finals appearances, her team has yet to lose a Finals game. 

“We see this as an opportunity to challenge the current conventions of the industry and to bring something new to the game and to recognize there should be no gap between gender and basketball,” said Petrick. 

Puma has bet on younger athletes and women succeeding on the court. Though the athletes may come with a large following, it does not guarantee success at the professional level. So far, Stewie and LaMelo appear to be cash cows for the brand. Mikey Williams’ future on the hardwood remains to be seen. If the three succeed, Puma’s basketball revival will be much more than an awakening. It will be a galvanizing wave for both male and female young athletes. 

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

Subscribe

Enter your email below