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New NBA Sneaker Rule Opens Up a Rainbow of Opportunities

Experts weigh in on the buzz around the NBA’s announcement that players can now sport sneakers of any color, for any game this season.

Bailey Knecht

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The NBA — known for its bright lights, highlight-reel plays, and big personalities — has added another vibrant aspect to its Hollywood-like culture. The league has relaxed its sneaker policy and will allow players to wear shoes in the color of their choice for any games in the upcoming season.  

“It’s been nothing but positive [reactions] from players, to people within industry, to fans and sneakerheads,” said Matt Halfhill, founder of Nice Kicks. “I think this is a great thing.”

“All the brands are already working on loud and crazy, colorful stuff,” added Nick DePaula, NBA feature writer at ESPN and creative director at Nice Kicks. DePaula was the first to break the news, which spurred immediate reactions from players and fans on social media.

The news quickly spurred comparisons to other professional leagues, where players are considered to have less freedom.

“Immediately after I tweeted the story, the biggest line of feedback was people making fun of the NFL and tagging NFL players to point out the league’s approach and how they allow different expressions in their shoes on the field and court,” DePaula said. “We’ve seen the NBA in terms of how they treat social issues and encourage players to take stances. Obviously, sneakers are a less impactful part of that, but it’s definitely one element in terms of allowing players to be creative and expressive.”

In years’ past, black, white or team colors were the mandate, save for a number of “theme games” per season, during which players could break out their colorful kicks. Now, players have total power when it comes to colorways.

“Sneakers are one of the few items that these elite players have that average Joes can have. Sneakers are a way to connect to these players, and for a lot of people, there’s a really deep personal story.” – Matt Halfhill, founder of Nice Kicks.

“Equipment managers provide season-long schedules of uniforms, and in the past, they’ve coordinated sneaker schedules with big games,” DePaula said. “Now, it’s going to next level where if, for example, Mike Conley from the Grizzlies plays in Cleveland, he can wear Ohio State tribute sneakers.”

That ability to show off their personality on the court is particularly important for NBA players, according to Victoria Jacobi, who works in brand consulting and athlete relations.

“Especially in the basketball world, even those guys who don’t have a sneaker deal and their own design, it kind of gives them a platform to showcase their fashion style,” she said. “They can send a message on the court…On that level, it’s become its own phenomenon, and it’s getting more important now. The NBA gives you that platform to pick and choose and do your own thing.”

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Sneakers also give fans the opportunity to show off their own style and relate to players; the entire sneakerhead phenomenon is fueled by fans’ desire to feel a connection to the players, according to Halfhill.

“Sneakers are one of the few items that these elite players have that average Joes can have,” Halfhill said. “I guess they both have iPhones, but other than that, their watches, cars, and closets are not the same as ours — except the sneakers. Sneakers are a way to connect to these players, and for a lot of people, there’s a really deep personal story.”

For the media — particularly sneaker blogs and popular outlets like Nice Kicks — the rule change opens up a whole new world of opportunities when it comes to sneaker coverage.

“There might be that much more interest across the board, across all media, because of the nightly interest,” DePaula said, pointing to the extensive coverage that LeBron James received last season as he debuted 51 unique versions of his LeBron 15 shoes. “There was so much interest in real time and on Instagram.”

SEE MORE: Zach Harper on the NBA, Soup, and Finding His Professional Way

“What players wear on the court has always been big part of Nice Kicks, especially with our Kicks on Court column, which tracks what NBA players are wearing,” Halfhill added. “As we started gaining visibility, NBA guys were hitting us up directly, and they first got in touch with us over sneakers. There became an internal competition on who wore the greatest shoes, and Kicks on Court is still one of our biggest columns. The sneakerhead culture was underground, and now it’s mainstream.”

The new policy also creates endless opportunities for vibrant PEs, particularly for players that may not play for teams with traditionally popular colors.

“I think this whole color restriction lift will be helpful for smaller market guys and guys that Nike may not work as much with their colorways, like Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Russell Westbrook,” DePaula said. “The Milwaukee Bucks and OKC, historically, their colors aren’t particularly good sellers in terms of colorways. That could be something that helps them out, and also for smaller markets like Orlando and teams like that.”

SEE MORE: WNBA Teams Find Success Through Creative Partnerships

Jacobi pointed to a number of players in small markets who could benefit from more opportunities for multi-colored shoes, especially those who are known for their flashy sense of style like Westbrook and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

“It doesn’t matter where they are, these guys are adopting this fashion culture,” she said. “They travel enough and see enough of the world to apply it wherever they want.”

DePaula also mentioned that, although most eyes may be on Nike, which was worn by about 68 percent of the league in 2017-18, the policy change also gives brands like Adidas, Under Armour and Puma an opportunity to thrive. Those organizations each outfitted less than 20 percent of the NBA’s players last season, but they all have the chance to make waves with the new creative freedom.

Given all the buzz around the announcement, it’s clear that sneakers represent a lot more than just some leather and rubber stitched together. They have the power to communicate messages that are much greater than basketball, and it’s safe to assume those messages will be even bigger and brighter this season.

“This is where the personality is going to live,” Halfhill said. “I think sneakers are a great canvas. You can tell a lot of stories through colors and materials, and make a lot of statements. When you lace up a certain shoe, there’s a statement being made.”

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

Fashion

How Megan Wilson Blogged Her Way to Becoming a Top Athlete Stylist

The Toronto native used sports television as a gateway into fashion. Now she’s fused her two passions to make a name for herself.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo courtesy: Megan Wilson

Growing up, Megan Wilson embraced a bold sense of fashion, even if it made her stand out.

“I was always known as the one who dressed a little crazy, who made her own clothes, who started collecting sneakers in middle school and high school,” Wilson said. “I was always a little different.”

Those childhood fashion risks evolved into dreams of a career in fashion, but the Toronto native decided it was more realistic to pursue a career in the television industry.

READ MORE: Rick Welts Talks NBA Business, Distribution and Mental Health

For three years, Wilson worked at Toronto-based digital media network theScore. Yet fashion was always in the back of her mind, so she started a blog on the side to get her fix. “She Got Game” covered everything from trends and endorsement deals to design, new products and branding. Wilson also styled photo shoots and collaborated with brands and PR companies on branded content for the blog.

“It was during the heyday of blogging, but no one really wrote about sports and fashion, like, ‘What is this guy wearing?’” she said. “Obviously, now, it’s a major talking point, but I was one of the first people to start doing that.”

As “She Got Game” and her social media platforms took off, Wilson decided to quit her job and pursue fashion full-time. She continued her fashion blogging and began covering events like NBA All-Star Weekend while taking design courses and forging connections in the sports industry. She even leveraged her blogging experience to earn freelance positions with Complex and ESPN.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and Wilson is a now self-employed stylist and designer with clients in the NBA, NFL and MLB, as well as retail companies like Nike and Reebok.

“I don’t think I’d trade it—I’m not sure I would know how to work for someone anymore,” she said. “Obviously, I work for clients, so it’s a little different, and I have a little control over my own destiny, and it can be more stressful and hectic, but at the end of the day, things are up to me and not a giant corporation.”

Even though she’s transitioned out of her career in TV, Wilson has been able to tap into her years of experience in media to bolster her styling career. She has appeared as a featured expert on major outlets like GQ, High Snobiety, CNN, NBA TV and Bleacher Report, and she starred on “Lace Up: The Ultimate Sneaker Challenge” by YouTube Originals.

“[TV] gave me a lot of contacts and an idea of how stories are made and how things are created, and obviously it trained me on how to be on camera,” she said. “I learned, being in the media, it’s easier to book someone if they have TV experience than if they’re brand new. It’s a great way to build your network and reach people who might not know what I do and speak to them.”

According to Randy Osei, founder of Rozaay Management and Wilson’s close friend and colleague, Wilson’s influence stems from her ability to relate to others, both in person and on screen.

“She’s very bubbly,” Osei said. “She can walk in any room and mingle with anybody and connect with athletes because she can speak about sneakers and basketball. She can connect with women, connect with people in arts, and connect with people in fashion. She’s very diverse in her talents, almost like a chameleon.”

Constructing a network of close contacts in the fashion industry is crucial in Wilson’s line of work. Styling athletes with larger-than-normal sizing requirements isn’t a simple task.

“The biggest piece is building a relationship with talent and also with the people that work at Gucci and Balenciaga and Off-White and Supreme,” Osei said. “You can’t just call and say, ‘Put in a size 15 for this.’ No, you’ve got to know someone.”

Wilson also dedicates time and energy to building trust with her clients, many of whom are high-profile sports stars.

“She’s done a really amazing job of understanding the culture and teaching that to her clients,” Osei said. “She does a little educating as she’s working, which is great because, as a player, it’s great to have a stylist, but you don’t want to have a stylist until you die.”

Although now she works with some of the biggest names in sports and fashion, Wilson had to work her way up the food chain, and she credits her blogging and social media as the root of her success.

“It’s still an important part of my life, and I started my career because of Twitter and connecting to athletes and building a brand for myself as a sports fashion girl,” she said.

In recent years, though, Wilson has become less dependent on social media and has focused more of her efforts on authentic, in-person connections with clients who share her values.

“I’m more choosy with it because I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said. “With Instagram, a lot of people are willing to work for free, whether it’s for clout or to look a certain way, but I’m a little choosier.”

READ MORE: NBC and Refinery29 Promote Female Empowerment Through ‘On Her Turf’

That selectivity has been an important lesson, especially as a business owner in the high-paced world of fashion and sports.

“You have to learn discipline, and I definitely burned myself out and I’ve gotten sick because I’m the only person I’m responsible for,” she said. “I’ve always been a hard worker and energetic, and sometimes I take too much on, so prioritization is the hardest lesson but a good one, especially in a field where you’re expected to do a lot of things. You have to think, ‘What is going to help me in six months but also in five years?’”

Now, and looking ahead, Wilson is putting herself and her brand first.

And whether she’s designing a sneaker, sharing her expertise on TV, or styling a client, she stays true to her individuality—just like all those years ago, when she was just a teenager showing up to school in crazy clothes.

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Nike’s KD 12 An Exercise In Innovation, Teamwork

Kevin Durant’s latest shoe includes tweaks on timing, design, and cut. All of it stems from the partnership between Durant and Nike designer Leo Chang.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There are only so many people who can tell Kevin Durant what to do. Nike designer Leo Chang is one of them.

Chang has designed all 12 of Durant’s signature shoes, the latest of which was released on Thursday. In formulating the KD 12, Chang knew the sneaker’s namesake required a significant adjustment: Durant needed a higher, more compact heel. Considering Durant has worn a low shoe since the KD VI, Chang knew he had to explain this change delicately.

“We told him – it was a kind of a joke, but kind of serious – ‘Yo, you’ve been popping out of your shoes a lot,’” Chang says. “We want to make sure, functionally, he’s locked into his shoe. It’s not so much about action around the ankle. It’s more just making sure he stays in his shoe. So we talked with him, like, ‘Hey, we want to just maybe go just a little higher than normal for you.’”

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Enter the KD 12. Beyond the heel adjustment, this shoe is notable for being the first Nike Basketball shoe with full-length Nike Air Zoom cushioning stitched directly to the upper portion of the shoe. This allows the foot to be closer to the air bag, while creating a broken-in feeling requested by Durant. Four-way directional Flywire cables in the upper are designed to provide stability and lock down (and are even written about on the inner of the shoe).

The KD 12 will retail for $150 (black and white “The Day One” colorway, seen here, will go live on April 6).

Chang’s collaboration with Durant goes back even before the KD1 to such models as the Blue Chip Supreme. Like Durant, Chang came from a single-mother household and says that has helped him connect with the 10-time All-Star. Building and improving a product over a decade also strengthens their bond.

“He knows that I have his best interest in mind,” Chang says. “I know his foot and I know his style and I can anticipate his needs. A lot of times, we will find ourselves totally aligned on our ideas.

“I don’t know that there was a lot of disagreements or anything like that [with the KD 12]. It was more when he would have a question, I would explain it to him. I don’t think there were many challenges. I think we just have a really good working relationship and a good amount of trust.”

Chang started working with Durant before the latter became a scoring champion, NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVP. Those Nike loyalties pay royalties: Durant’s profile, bank account and business network have grown, but his Nike inner circle has remained mostly consistent. That may be more important than ever this season, when Durant’s icy rapport with the media over his impending free agency has become a national storyline.

“Over the years, especially lately, he’s been scrutinized for every little thing he says or every little thing does,” Chang acknowledges. “Knowing that there’s a team here that he’s been in with for a long time that knows him and can represent that, I think it’s always a refreshing thing that feels comfortable with him. It’s a team that he can trust.”

In terms of construction, Chang prioritized a lightweight feel, one which eliminated the midsole layering and added flyknit-constructed tongue for a plush, padded feel. It’s a departure from past models, which, according to Nike North America Media Relations Director Josh Benedek, facilitated an earlier-than-usual release date “so that he is comfortable in the shoe for the playoffs.”

Photo Credit: Nike

Durant was reportedly set to debut his first pair of the KD 12 on Saturday against the Thunder, nine months after the KD 11 was released in June 2018, but he did not play due to an ankle injury. According to Chang, none of the fun has worn off along the way.

“He’s like, ‘Man, I’m on the 12th shoe. This is crazy. We’re still going,’” Chang says. “It’s still like a kid in a candy store for him. He still feels that excitement of having a signature shoe and that privilege.”

Visually, the KD 12 provides deliberate references to the 1990s, a concept both Durant and Chang desired. Durant imagined a modern twist on the shoes of his youth, from Pennys to Jordans and especially Barkleys.

READ MORE: MSG Networks Partners With Overtime To Create A Unique Simulcast

“Our approach was that a millennial represents the future and the 90s represents the past,” Chang says. “So, it’s bringing that together in a modern way that isn’t about retro or anything like that.”

Durant and Chang struck that balance by adding excessive shapes, especially in the bottoms, midsoles, outsoles and tooling. Chang says other upcoming colorways will epitomize this 90s flavor with bright colors and unique designs. 

Making innovative basketball shoes ready to be broken in before the playoffs? It’s not an easy task, but Leo Chang knows how to do it. Moves like that keep Kevin Durant’s trust.

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Mizzen+Main Looks to Continue Sports Push With Murray, Mickelson

A $44 promotion following Phil Mickelson’s 44th PGA Tour victory helps showcase Mizzen+Main’s commitment to the sports market.

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Photo credit: Mizzen+Main

As a growing company, Mizzen+Main is quick and nimble, which are good attributes for a retailer that works with athletes.

Case in point: This week the apparel company launched a $44, 44-hour sale to celebrate Phil Mickelson’s 44th PGA Tour victory last weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Mickelson is a partner athlete of Mizzen+Main, which makes performance menswear, including button-down dress shirts, pullovers, henleys and t-shirts. 

Mizzen+Main CMO Stephanie Swingle said similar promotions could be right around the corner.

“Stay tuned. We try to be ready, and as a smaller company we can be reactive,” Swingle said. “We’re always coming up with exciting ideas.”

Mizzen+Main also got a nice boost this week when Kyler Murray made his long-anticipated announcement he’d focus on a football career. Murray is also an athlete partner of Mizzen+Main.

READ MORE: Swet Tailor Success Buoyed By Modern Athlete’s Fashion Preferences

“As with any brand partnership, relevance helps and we are lucky to have partnered with him at this exciting part of his career,”  Swingle said.

The established Mickelson and upstart Murray provide Mizzen+Main a great diversity in athlete representation, a mixture Swingle said is important to the brand as it broke tradition when the company launched an all-new product designed for a modern consumer.

“Mizzen+Main is by far the most comfortable dress shirt I’ve ever worn,” Murray said. “The shirts stretch when you move, and you don’t have to worry about wrinkles or showing any sweat. They are really changing the game in what to wear when you want to look good and feel good at the same time.”

The brand was started in 2012 when founder and CEO Kevin Lavelle was interning in Washington, D.C. and saw a guy running into a meeting, dress shirt drenched in sweat. The hustle showed it was an important meeting, but also left him looking less than dapper.

“Kevin knew performance fabrics powered the world’s best athletes, so why not pull that into traditional items?” Swingle said. “He wore it home one day and his wife didn’t realize he was wearing a prototype. That’s when he knew he had something to start a business.”

The brand then grew organically for the next several years and eventually partnered with Houston Texan JJ Watt, who was already a fan of the brand.

“Anytime you tell a customer about a new product, you need to have credibility of someone they respect and look up to,” Swingle said. “At scale, it’s wonderful to have an athlete.”

Once the shirts hit the market, athletes were among the first consumers to grab them off the shelves. Swingle said there are more than 1,000 professional athletes wearing the shirts. She said they reach players in a variety of ways, including a VIP Athlete Coordinator who manages athlete outreach and knows a lot of players are fans as they do notice recognizable names come across Shopify.

The athlete coordinator also goes to events, like MLB Spring Training, golf events and other major sporting events throughout the year to sell directly to the athletes.

It’s at those events and on social media channels that Mizzen+Main representatives can see the athlete grassroots marketing in action.

READ MORE: Puma Plants Flag in Hoops World With Full All-Star Calendar

“We love to tap into some of the conversations they have with each other,” Swingle said. “We see the impact directly at Spring Training when one athlete brings in another and talks about how it’s their favorite dress shirt.

“That really helps us have that organic spread and as a brand, that feels amazing.”

This year, the brand further expanded its product line with items like polo shirts and pullovers and wants to continue to spread the word “that we are the best damn dress shirt,” Swingle said.

Right now, Swingle said the official endorsement focus will be on Mickelson and Murray, but the more than 1,000 other professional athletes will remain a core focus while building out Mizzen+Main’s customer base.

“Our products are very comfortable and low maintenance for a great lifestyle,” Swingle said. “Athletes are great way to showcase the brand as a natural way to break through and deliver credibility and show how products aren’t just designed for the golf course but the office.”

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