The 2019 NBA Draft is one month away, and Duke star Zion Williamson looks like a lock for the first pick, a choice that belongs to the New Orleans Pelicans.
But a parlor game that is nearly as popular right now in the NBA world is which sneaker brand will sign Williamson.
The 6-foot-7 power forward famously burst through his Nike sneaker in the first minute of a Duke-UNC game in February. By March, Nike had made Zion new custom sneakers to play in, leading many to think Nike has the edge on signing him as a pro, since it already has built a relationship with the star. On the other hand, Adidas could shell out for Zion; or Puma, which jumped back into NBA sponsorships last year, could pay; or a Chinese sneaker brand like Li Ning or Anta could land him.
Matt Powell, sneaker analyst with NPD Group, says at the end of the day, the equation will come down to money—and that’s it. “My gut is that he’s ultimately going to sign with whoever pays him the most money,” Powell said on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast. “And there’s obviously real logic in doing that.”
It might be nice to think that endorsement decisions depend at least partially on personal relationships, or brand reputation, but Powell says these days it’s a purely financial decision for the athletes, and brand loyalty doesn’t play into it. (In tennis, Roger Federer ditched Nike for a massive 10-year contract from Uniqlo.)
When NBA player Deandre Ayton signed with Puma last year, he made his motives very clear, in an interview with Bleacher Report: “Puma was the best deal. At the end of the day, it's a business. You've gotta take care of your people... If Adidas is giving you like $2 mil and Nike is giving you $1 mil, who would you pick?”
When Williamson does get paid, it is likely to be a very large payday—even in an era when athlete and celebrity endorsements are generally perceived to be less valuable than in the past.
“I do think this will be a larger-than-normal contract,” says Powell. “I think because of Williamson’s talent, he’s going to bring in much more than the $1 million or $2 million that most rookies get. But at the end of the day, I don’t think he will earn out what anyone pays him.”
Powell says that other recent mega NBA sneaker deals, like Nike’s deal with Kevin Durant or Under Armour’s deal with Steph Curry, have not sold enough product to justify the cost of the endorsement contract. “That has brought some sanity, if you will, to the rookie contract marketplace.” Moreover, performance basketball sneaker sales have taken a beating in the U.S., down 20% in Q1 of this year.
Still, don’t expect sanity to win out in the Zion Williamson sneaker bidding war. Durant’s current Nike deal is worth about $8.5 million per year; Zion could command $10 million per year.
Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing, says he expects Williamson to get a $100 million deal. “It wouldn’t be outrageous by any stretch,” Steiner told Yahoo Finance. “He’s got that buzz, that ‘it’ factor that doesn’t come around, and that’s what kids want.”
Listen to Matt Powell talk sneakers with Dan Roberts and Reggie Wade on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast:
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.