Don’t call it a comeback, but Puma is making noise again. The iconic sneaker and apparel brand, mostly known for branding products for soccer, track and field, and every sport other than basketball, is making a serge back into the hoops business.
In late June of this year, Puma made a splash when it announced it was re-entering the basketball sneaker business for the first time in 20 years with the help of none other than hip-hop icon and business mogul Jay-Z. He has officially been given the title of “Creative Director” for the German sports apparel company, a role that will involve him working on art direction for Puma’s shoes, as well as shaping the overall concept of the revitalized basketball division (though according to Billboard he will not play a part in selecting individual players for sponsorship deals).
The news of Jay-Z’s signing was surprisingly followed by Puma signing endorsement deals with young NBA talent so fresh in the league, they weren’t even drafted yet. Before this year’s NBA Draft, Puma signed projected first-round picks Deandre Ayton (taken first overall), Marvin Bagley III (second overall), and Zhaire Smith (16th overall) to multi-year deals for footwear and apparel endorsements. They also eventually signed Michael Porter Jr. (taken 14th overall), who was rated the top player from the high school class of 2017 before getting hurt, and more recently Boston’s standout guard ‘Scary’ Terry Rozier and veteran forward Rudy Gay.
They also have their sights set on the women’s game, naming Dallas Wings guard, Skylar Diggins-Smith, who debuted the new Clyde Court Disrupt during WNBA All-Star weekend, as a brand ambassador and becoming an official footwear partner of the WNBA.
To say it plainly, Puma’s not messing around. After getting burned by Vince Carter in 2000, backing out of his original 1998 endorsement deal, which they ultimately sued him for, Puma is once again seizing a window of opportunity to make a name for itself in the basketball world which it hasn’t had since the original Puma Clyde dropped back in the 1970’s.
The bold moves taken by Puma make me wonder where they got the balls to not only sign arguably the most well-known name in hip-hop culture today, but to steal Ayton and Bagley right from under Nike’s nose, both of whom played for Nike sponsored teams in high school and in college. It can only be explained by one powerful force in today’s hoops culture called “The Laval Ball Effect” and this effect is expanding even more with rumours New Balance also plans to re-enter the basketball category.
There’s no doubt in my mind Puma and New Balance watched Laval Ball build his own following by launching Big Baller Brand or “BBB” in 2017. It was an anomaly of sorts because no independent sports apparel company has even tried to challenge Nike or Adidas for market share. But Laval Ball and the rest of the Ball family, consisting of sons Lonzo Ball (Drafted second overall in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Lakers), LiAngelo Ball (pulled out of UCLA by his father after being suspended indefinitely for shoplifting on a team trip to China) and LaMelo Ball (pulled out of school by Laval to play basketball professionally overseas) are anomalies themselves.
Not only has Lavar Ball been able to create a loyal following for BBB all over America, this year he also launched the Junior Basketball Association (JBA), giving non-scholar athletes the chance to play professionally and build a resume for a shot at an NBA tryout.
The BBB right now may not be anywhere close to competing financially with Under Armor’s market share, and the JBA doesn’t even pull in attendance numbers anywhere near even the NBA G-League, but Lavar’s personal and family brands are intriguing enough to keep major sports media outlets like ESPN, FOX Sports, and Bleacher Report covering every move they make. Notable names in pro sports like Chad Ochocinco, Michael Bennett and many others have strongly voiced support for the Ball Family and BBB. Some believe Lavar’s circle of influence was so effective that it could have motivated Lakers president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, to draft Lonzo last year second overall.
Puma is a multi-generational company that has already worked with big names like Usain Bolt, Leo Messi, and Mario Balotelli. They’ve even released design collabs with the likes of Rhianna and, more recently, The Weeknd. Yet, they were out of touch with hoops culture. Recognizing that one man with his three sons can create a buzz across the continent, Puma has upped the ante on the hoops apparel market share and has gone full throttle, giving their basketball division a much-needed face lift, or to be more specific, building it from the ashes of being burned by Vince Carter 20 years ago.
I think the sports apparel business, and more importantly the sneaker wars, has been a 1-2 battle between Nike (which also consists of Jordan Brand) and Adidas for way too long. Both companies have become stale in their approach to reaching the target market of the next generation, mainly relying on re-releasing limited quantities of ‘retro’ editions each month to feed their friendly neighbourhood sneakerhead ‘hype-beast’.
It’s no secret that I love what Lavar Ball is doing with BBB and the JBA, but even more I love that its awakening sleeping giants like Puma, New Balance and others to step their game up and bringing fresh, creative ideas and concepts to the sneaker industry.