Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Calvin Kasulke, who previously wrote about body wash for us. This time, he talks about indie basketball shoes sold by Spencer Dinwiddie, a guy who just did something classy—after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and others in a helicopter crash this week, he gave up his jersey number, which was also Bryant’s. Anyway, read on.
Today in Tedium: The Brooklyn Nets have three point guards, and the one you’re least likely to be able to name has his own shoe line. In an era where athleisure is the dominant sports-adjacent fashion trend, we take a look at the history of players striking out to create their own footwear brands and if there’s any hope for basketball shoes in general—and Spencer Dinwiddie’s independent sneaker line in particular. Today’s Tedium ponders whether players might be able to take direct control of their footwear destiny. — Calvin @ Tedium
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Kyrie Irving’s backup has a shoe line, too
Voting for the 2020 NBA All-Star game wrapped up last week, and the polling is in.
Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ starting point guard, earned the second-highest number of fan votes for his conference and position this year—which is borderline unbelievable, considering injuries have kept him from playing in all but in 17 of the team’s 45 games this season. Irving, though, is an undeniably great point guard, and his on-court skills and wild off-court interviews have translated into starring roles in movies and the second-best selling basketball shoe in the 2017-18 season—one that even withstood a recent downturn in the fortunes of his peers’ sneakers.
“Sales were expected to dip in 2017, but Irving’s shoes bucked the trend. He was the only one of the top five players to see an increase in his signature shoe sales last year,” Forbes noted.
Spencer Dinwiddie is also a point guard on the Nets, albeit a less popular one. He ranked 12th in All-Star fan voting, 11 spots behind Irving, despite putting up a more than respectable stat line and not having missed a single game so far this season. He has not starred in a movie, though he was on Rachael Ray once. Dinwiddie, too, has his own basketball shoe.
While Irving has a Nike deal that earned him $11 million in 2018, Dinwiddie started his own sneaker brand, called K8IROS. Dinwiddie wore #8 until just this week, following the death of Kobe Bryant, who formerly wore #8. Dinwiddie has since changed his jersey to #26.
(He offers more explanation behind the name here.)
The cost of Nike’s Kyrie 6s, the latest version of the second most popular basketball shoe on the market. (Which, increasingly, isn’t saying much.) The original Kyrie 1s were first released in December 2014, when Irving was still teammates with the man behind the best-selling basketball shoe on the market, LeBron James.
If you can’t beat ‘em, sell massively reduced-price alternatives to challenge the dominant hegemony
Dinwiddie isn’t the first player to eschew major shoe companies like Nike, Reebok or Adidas (“eschew” might be a bit severe—Dinwiddie likely wasn’t fielding offers) to create a signature brand with a less well-known entity.
Players like Dwayne Wade have looked east, partnering with Chinese companies to release their own line of athletic shoes. Wade signed an endorsement deal with Li Ning in 2012, a lifetime deal in 2018, and brought Warriors volume scorer D’Angelo Russell to the company in 2019. The currently-injured Klay Thompson preceded Russell both as the Warriors’ shooting guard and player with a hefty overseas contract, signing with the Chinese athletic apparel company Anta in 2014.
But what Dinwiddie is doing more closely resembles the entrepreneurial endeavors of earlier basketball stars than his peers harnessing the Chinese sportswear market.
As early as 1995, the Houston Rockets’ star center Hakeem Olajuwon partnered with Spalding to create a basketball shoe that was more affordable than the incredibly popular Air Jordans, whose high price tag and limited runs contributed to Olajuwon’s belief that young people would kill for them. Olajuwon’s “The Dream” line, produced by a company better known for its balls than its sneakers, cost an eminently reasonable $34.99 but did precious little to curb the popularity of Jordan’s shoe. In 2006, Stephon Marbury created his own shoe: The Starbury sneaker line, distributed by Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, was explicitly created to be affordable, coming it at under $15. While the sneakers moved units, Steve & Barry’s filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and the shoes were discontinued until 2016.
Dinwiddie’s partner company and K8IROS purveyor Project D.R.E.A.M. went live in October of 2018, which, one could argue, was an inauspicious time to start a basketball shoe business, as the industry was pivoting away from performance footwear in favor of athleisure shoes and apparel. One could also argue that since then, the athletic sneaker market has only gotten worse.
To wit: NBA ratings are declining. Also still declining are sales of sports performance shoes, particularly basketball shoes.
The current amount of sneaker sales basketball shoes account for. “According to data from research firm NPD Group, five years ago basketball sneakers accounted for 13 percent of the US sales it tracks; they’re down to about 4 percent today,” Quartz noted. Older shoes also sold by Nike, such as retro-tinged Air Jordans and Converse Chuck Taylors (which started out as basketball shoes but are now widely treated as casual sneakers) have helped fill the sales gap.
Ratings are down, and so are shoe sales
One could be forgiven for not anticipating this sales dive. In 2015, The Washington Post was quoting analysts’ heady projections predicting the exact opposite of this trend: “Not a single top-line lead indicator [points] to a slowing in the athletic cycle today.” And yet, slowed it most certainly has.
Slipping NBA ratings, too, might play a part in the decreasing popularity of basketball shoes in particular. From WaPo again: “NBA ratings on ESPN and TNT, through mid-December, were down more than 15 percent compared with last year.” It tracks, then, that fewer fans tuning in for NBA games combined with basketball sneakers themselves falling out of fashion have resulted in significantly lower sales for basketball shoes.
And with behemoths like Nike and Adidas facing sales dips in these categories (except for Kyrie’s shoes, of course), how can an independent, player-controlled brand hope to stay afloat? The only other significant, independent basketball shoe brand, the Ball family’s Big Baller Brand, has essentially shut down.
And yet, I believe in Spencer Dinwiddie. I believe he’s going to score when he’s driving toward the basket, and I believe he has a strong enough sense of business acumen to succeed in his various entrepreneurial ventures. This is a guy who, just last year, battled the NBA over the ability to sell shares of his contract as cryptocurrency-backed tokens—and won. (More on that later.) So I have a hard time accepting K8IROS is just a vanity project, or was founded without some kind of plan or rationale that accounts for the ever-worsening market conditions amid which the shoe was launched.
Seeking this rationale, I reached out to Project D.R.E.A.M., but have yet to hear back from a representative of the company. I also reached out to senior sports industry advisor Matt Powell, to ask what hope K8IROS had for success. His initial outlook wasn’t exactly hopeful.
“With fashion trends working against them, smaller basketball brands don’t have much room to grow,” Powell told me via email. Okay, not a great start—but then, a glimmer of hope. “The K8IROS product is priced fairly and has potential. The one major obstacle is that the consumer was constant newness, which is very hard to do as a small brand.”
“With performance basketball out of fashion, it will be very hard for these brands to get much traction beyond the fans of the player.”
The number of Instagram followers Dinwiddie has; along with his 70k Twitter followers, these numbers tag him as a mid-tier influencer. That said, influencer marketing is still on the rise, along with Dinwiddie himself. Between starting in place of Irving for 33 games this season, including some significant 30+ point outings, and generating some buzz around selling shares of his contract, searches for Spencer Dinwiddie have seen some significant spikes this year. With more searches of his name, whether after a good game or around news of a new cryptocurrency platform, come (admittedly very slight) increases in searches for his shoes. Still, Matt Powell wasn’t impressed with my influencer theory. “I do not see creative moves like Dinwiddie’s having an impact on merchandise sales,” he told me.
If creating buzz around the success of a specific player isn’t the solution, then maybe the basketball shoe market isn’t as bleak as it appears? After all, Lonzo Ball’s BBB shoe venture isn’t a perfect comparison to Dinwiddie’s K8IROS—some of the company’s difficulties can be attributed to factors beyond market trends. And falling NBA ratings may not be disastrous to apparel sales, if league commissioner Adam Silver’s explanation to the Washington Post is to be believed.
“I’m not concerned, either. In terms of every other key indicator that we look at that measures the popularity of the league, we’re up,” he told the paper. “Social media engagement remains in the magnitude of 1.6 billion people on a global basis … Our merchandising sales are up. The issue then, for me, is that we’re going through a transition in terms of how [the league] is distributed to our fans, particularly our young fans.”
With his last point, SIlver appears to be hinting at the literally countless NBA fans who illegally stream basketball games, and who therefore aren’t counted towards the league’s total viewership. Maybe it’s just spin from the man whose job it is to run the league, or maybe the health every other engagement metric—including merch sales!—indicate that while traditional TV viewership is down, plenty of people may still be (illegally) tuning in. (RIP, r/nbastreams.)
Perhaps the most telling indicator that the K8IROS brand is a significant risk is the reality that Dinwiddie is one of the only players to attempt to opt to create his own sneaker brand instead of teaming up with a major company in the U.S. or China to distribute a signature shoe. It’s possible that the increasing ease of reaching manufacturers and suppliers through online firms like Alibaba will lower the barrier to entry, allowing for more players to cut out the middleman and start their own sneaker brand.
But while it’s possible to quibble with the accuracy of NBA viewership data or find an online manufacturer for your own custom shoe, Powell points out that the quantifiable facts of the sneaker market will probably keep K8IROS more of an aberration than the beginning of an independent basketball shoe trend.
“Performance basketball shoes have been out of fashion for 4 years, with no sign of coming back in the near term,” he said.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks to Calvin for writing a super-fascinating piece about sneakers.