Zion Williamson’s rookie sneaker deal will easily surpass the $90 million deal that Nike gave LeBron as a teenager.
The comparisons to LeBron James were unfair in many regards. The pressure of labeling a kid “the next LeBron” was entirely unnecessary, but society seems infatuated with anointing people as the “the next” something or other, regardless of how silly and lazy it is.
But in one very real sense, Duke’s Zion Williamson is already the next LeBron, not in terms of basketball skills and future NBA titles, but within the realm of the athletic footwear and apparel industry.
Zion is about to become a very wealthy man prior to playing a single NBA game. His sneaker deal will easily surpass LeBron’s $90 million contract that he signed prior to his rookie year sixteen years ago. Industry insiders are speculating that Williamson’s first shoe deal will exceed the $100 million plateau.
One of the most exciting and electrifying players in the history of college hoops, Zion’s overall brand value is the highest of any college basketball player since the likes of Len Bias and Michael Jordan.
“In my lifetime, I think it’s going to be the biggest bidding war ever done,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the legendary former shoe executive who signed Michael Jordan to Nike in 1984 and who also worked with Adidas and Reebok.
Some are trying to temper expectations, pointing to the huge Adidas contract for James Harden or the rookie deal that Andrew Wiggins signed coming out of Kansas, both of which have not resulted in skyrocketing sales.
But with all do respect to Harden and Wiggins, neither one of those guys can compete with Zion’s charisma, Q-factor and ability to add value to every institution he represents.
His stardom as a marketing spokesman has already been proven and regardless of whatever market he winds up playing in, his signature shoe will make a huge impact in the very saturated footwear game.
In 2003, Reebok supposedly presented James with a $10 million check that he could cash immediately, while offering an incentive-laden $100 million deal. He chose Nike’s guarantee of $87 million over seven years, and flipped that into a lifetime endorsement deal, with equity, similar to Michael Jordan’s deal with the Air Jordan subsidiary.
In 2009, Kevin Durant met with executives at Adidas, who offered a seven-year, $70 million contract offer, loaded with additional incentive bonuses. But as silly as it sounds, KD and his boys grew up loving Nike, and that loyalty paid off for the Swoosh, who signed the freshman phenom out of Texas for $60 million over seven years. Durant re-signed with Nike in 2014.
Williamson’s deal will be within that rarefied air. The difference is that while LeBron and KD had two or three serious suitors, Zion will have at least six with Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, New Balance, Puma and Anta in the mix.
“If Zion doesn’t change, I predict that he will be the first basketball athlete at 18 years old that the world is rooting for to become a billionaire. I say billionaire, very easily,” Vaccaro told ESPN. “He is going to have an opportunity to be the face of every company and every major corporation. He is the most marketable person I’ve seen, for a lot of different reasons.”
Only nine players in NBA history have had a signature shoe for their rookie season – LeBron and Jordan with Nike, Lonzo Ball with the soon to be defunct Big Baller Brand, Jerry Stackhouse and Grant Hill with Fila, Hakeem Olajuwon with Etonic, Stephon Marbury with AND1, and Shaq and Allen Iverson with Reebok.
Zion Williamson will be the tenth. And with his ties to the Carolina region, the early favorite to snag him has to be Brand Jordan.
But he’s also long had ties to Adidas, who sponsored his Spartanburg Day School team, along with his South Carolina Supreme AAU team. In fact, it can be said that he became one of Adidas’ top endorsers when he became a viral social media sensation due to his insane flight game and dunking prowess, with the Youtube mixtapes spreading the gospel of Zion long before he arrived at Duke.
Adidas has been dramatically scaling back what it spends on player contracts. As great as he is, the company allowed Joel Embiid’s endorsement deal to expire this fall and made no effort to re-sign him. Perhaps they’ve been stocking the war chest to make a run at Zion.
Puma, New Balance, Under Armour and Anta are dark-horse candidates with hopes of getting Zion to adorn their footwear.
Either way, having already established a global media profile while in college, Zion is ready to not only take the NBA by storm, but the business world as well.