SBJ/20090518/Opinion

Athlete endorsement deals evolve in post-’Shoe Wars’ era

Citing the economy and an absence of players with superstar potential, Sonny Vaccaro, who knows more than most about athletic footwear promotions, recently predicted a tough endorsement market for the NBA draft class of 2009.

All true, but let me suggest another reason for the dwindling endorsement market. The so-called “Shoe Wars” that commanded so much attention during the 1980s and ’90s are over. They have been for some time. How can there be a war with Nike’s share of the U.S. athletic footwear market more than double the combined share of its three closest competitors? Meanwhile, New Balance has jumped ahead of Adidas and Reebok, adding further justification for its “Endorsed by No One” positioning.

I was as caught up in hyping the “Shoe Wars” as much as anyone in the industry. But when things got a little too serious, I would think back to the time my Uncle Ed and I were sitting in the upper deck at Shea Stadium during the 1973 World Series. He had just opened a sporting goods store and was peering down at the Mets and A’s through his binoculars while furiously making notations. He wasn’t a scout, so I asked what he was doing. “Checking out what shoe brands they’re wearing,” he said. “Who cares?” I replied.

Ten years later when I began my career in the athletic footwear business, I started to care a lot and learned very quickly how top athletes enhanced brand authenticity and credibility. While anything remotely approaching a mega shoe deal is today unlikely even for first-team All-Americans, I believe it’s still important for sports products to be promoted by the best athletes. P.T. Barnum (the Sonny Vaccaro of his time?) once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens — nothing.” He wasn’t referring to athletic footwear promotions, but the observation is relevant.

The shoe business was more competitive 20-25 years ago, and the promo people went overboard on the number and scope of endorsement deals. Nevertheless, having athletes and entire teams wear our brand gave us shoe dogs something else to promote beyond EVA midsoles, lightweight uppers and durable outsoles. Case in point: So much was made about Shaquille O’Neal’s endorsement that Reebok, in the minds of many, was transformed almost overnight into a performance brand on par with Nike. This was far from reality but as the Reebok PR person, I wasn’t going to argue the point.

While the running category defined a brand’s technology credentials, the real battle for athletic footwear bona fides was waged in basketball. The war quickly spilled over into the NFL, MLB, international soccer and college sports before reaching a crescendo in 1996 during the build-up to the Atlanta Olympics. The media even portrayed the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident as a new front in the Reebok-Nike rivalry.

As long as Reebok, Adidas, Converse, Pony and others remained in Nike’s rearview mirror, getting some sort of shoe deal was part of the rite of passage for most athletes turning pro. It was a seller’s market, but much of that exposure eventually became nothing more than wallpaper, and the consumers who did notice were cynical.

Back in the “Shoe Wars” days, agents and their clients typically strode into Beaverton, Ore., Mountainside, N.J., or Stoughton, Mass., with a checklist of expectations (demands) about signature shoes and guaranteed advertising exposure, all for a lot of money and a bare minimum of the player’s personal time. With the shoe now on the other foot, that approach is more outdated than playing basketball in a pair of PF Flyers.

While more modest in scale, endorsement opportunities are available for athletes committed to building true partnerships with the companies whose products they endorse. The partnership needs to revolve around the athlete endorser committing to activities that give the company’s retail partners, consumers, suppliers and employees multiple reasons to care about the brand of shoes they wear.

Attending sales meetings and employee events, accompanying sales people on key account visits, speaking to the media about company initiatives, connecting with fans in-person and on digital platforms and partnering on community betterment programs give people reasons to care. This requires the endorser to devote more time and effort but can be accomplished without interfering with their main job as a professional athlete.

From first-round selections to the last player picked in the draft, professional athletes are influential. Their performances inspire people and provide us greatly needed respites from life’s realities. Off the field and away from the court, they have so much potential to do good work in their communities and motivate others to follow their lead. When properly conceived and managed, their endorsements are economic stimulus packages helping companies grow their business.

The “Shoe Wars” are over. Long live athletic footwear endorsements.

Dave Fogelson (dfogelson@optimum.net) held PR positions with Adidas USA and Reebok and was most recently director of worldwide communications for Octagon.

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