Examining PUMA Basketball's Reemergence

Over the past week, we have seen PUMA’s basketball division come back with a vengeance following a 20-year hiatus from the sport. In case you missed it, here’s a brief recap of what’s happened so far:

- PUMA formally announces their signing of Duke’s Marvin Bagley III to a 5-year contract, officially signifying the brand’s return to the basketball world. Bagley III’s contract is said to be the largest rookie sneaker deal since Kevin Durant (Nike, 2007).

- The brand announces another signee from this year’s draft class in the form of Texas Tech G Zhaire Smith, another projected 1st round pick and a Roc Nation Sports client.

- The sneaker company later announced it's signing of Arizona C DeAndre Ayton, likely the number one overall pick in Thursday's draft to a 4-year contract. The deal is an indication that not only is PUMA Basketball back, but also that they intend to make their presence felt amongst the top hoop’s brands in the world (i.e. Nike, Adidas).

- On Monday, PUMA announced that the new Creative Director of PUMA Basketball will be none other than the founder of Roc Nation himself, JAY-Z. While 'HOV' was originally introduced as “President of Basketball Operations”, that title was later rescinded by Adam Petrick, PUMA’s Global Director of Brand Marketing.

- Tuesday: In a move that pays homage to the brand’s first foray into basketball, PUMA announces that it has signed New York Knicks legend/announcer/original face of PUMA Basketball, Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime contract. Clyde’s status as ambassador for the brand has been longstanding, if unofficial to this point. His signature “Clyde” sneakers have been a bestseller of the brand’s since his playing days.

-Wednesday: The brand announces that it has signed Michael Porter Jr., yet another projected lottery pick in this year’s draft and the most polarizing player of the bunch.

- Later Wednesday: PUMA inks NBA F Rudy Gay, the first veteran signing of the basketball division’s new era.

Once this whirlwind of information is absorbed, the question remains: What does all of this mean for PUMA, the players, JAY-Z and Roc Nation, as well as the other big-name footwear and apparel brands. Lastly, what does this spell for the entire NBA landscape?

To fully understand the ramifications of PUMA Basketball’s sudden resurgence, let us take a look back at the division’s short (but storied) history...

In 1973, PUMA and NBA Champion Walt “Clyde” Frazier partner up for the release of PUMA’s first-ever signature basketball shoe, the “Puma Clyde". The signature kicks would go on to be amongst the brand’s most successful sneakers and released in countless color ways. This launch effectively jumpstarted PUMA Basketball with the cosign of one of the game’s top players. Despite the Puma Clyde’s success, the brand’s next notable superstar signing would not come for another 25 years.

In 1998, PUMA reached a deal with Toronto Raptors’ high-flying rookie Vince Carter. Though the partnership resulted in two high-profile sneaker releases - the “Cell VI” and the PUMA “Vinsanity”, it ultimately turned sour in 1999 when Carter announced that he would no longer be endorsing the brand and that PUMA would no longer be allowed to use his name. At the time, Carter alleged that the company did not make good on an agreement to release a signature sneaker for the All-Star Game (at the time, “Vinsanity” had yet to be released), nor did they spend a certain amount on advertising for V.C.

Ultimately, the issue was settled via arbitration - the arbitrator ruled in favor of PUMA, reaching a conclusion that Carter owed the company $13.5 million to get out of the contract, in addition roughly $1 million in legal fees. Following the debacle, Carter reached a deal with Nike that would cover the $14.5 million that he owed to PUMA.

Up until this week's signings, PUMA basketball has been dormant for nearly two decades.

In light of this history, how did PUMA basketball’s 2018 resurrection come to be? In a recent interview with Bleacher Report, the soon-to-be rookies offered answers to the question “Why Puma?” For Bagley III, PUMA was an easy choice due to his desire to “be different”, citing how Nike and Adidas make up the majority of the basketball sneaker market. The former Duke University star continued by saying that he would like to build something with this brand, as opposed to joining a much more established one with a whole roster full of basketball superstars. For Ayton, PUMA was simply the “best deal”, as the 19-year-old shares a similar desire to help build something from the ground up. Simply put, PUMA offers these young stars a chance to do something unique to commence their NBA careers - and their notoriety and promise creates a symbiotic relationship between themselves and the brand, a brand whose history in the sport indicates that they are in need of up-and-coming athletes just as much as said athletes are in need of someone to give them a signature shoe line. And judging by the domino effect that followed Bagley III and Ayton’s deals, it seems as though they are not the only athletes with the desire to stray off the beaten path.

Additionally, what does all of this mean for JAY-Z and his agency, ROC Nation Sports? Well, according to The Washington Post, the mogul’s new stint as Creative Director for PUMA Basketball carries with it a potentially huge conflict of interest - particularly if he finds himself in a recruiting role at the company. This is a responsibility that Adam Petrick originally said that JAY would have (but later backtracked to say that he will be focused on design and branding). In the Post’s report, questions were raised as to how problematic this partnership could potentially be: “Can Jay-Z’s company reasonably represent clients who are negotiating with other shoe companies? Can he talk business with players who are represented by other agents while trying to lure them to Puma? Can he help recruit new clients without the implied additional benefit of a potential Puma relationship?” As of right now, ROC Nation already has two clients signed to PUMA contracts - WNBA star Skylar Diggins and recent signee Zhaire Smith. And at the rate that both of these companies are currently growing  it will be interesting to see how this mutually beneficial (and potentially conflicting) relationship will play out.

As for the big-name brands endorsing the NBA’s top players, the balance of powers has undoubtedly shifted. Nike has long enjoyed dominance over the basketball sneaker market. According to Yahoo! Finance, the brand currently accounts for over 90% of the market share with Adidas making up the lion’s share of the remaining 10 percent. 

However, with the moves that have been made over the past few days, it is safe to assume that PUMA Basketball has every intention to disrupt this industry and will do so by signing elite talent. With PUMA Basketball officially back in business, only time will tell how their reemergence will impact the hoops landscape, starting with the NBA Draft.

Photo Courtesy of Zimbio
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