LeBron James made a big change heading into Game Three of the NBA Finals—one that perhaps didn’t affect the outcome of the series, although his Cavaliers did overcome a 2-0 deficit to win in seven, but could very well change the money he makes from his recently signed lifetime deal with Nike: He changed shoes. He abandoned the $200 LeBron 13 Elites that he’d worn in the first two games for the $140 triple-strapped LeBron Soldier 10. He went back to the Elites for the second half of Game Four—a game the Cavs lost—before returning to the Soldiers for good for the remainder of the Finals. The Block, The Almost Dunk, The Title for the Land—they all happened in a takedown.
More or less immediately after the Finals ended, Nike began capitalizing. They announced the Soldier 10 would be available for one day only on NIKEiD for $180, where consumers could build replicas of the shoes LeBron wore in the Finals. They sold out. A gum-bottom black pair hit select retailers, and those sold out as well.
It has been interesting times for Nike Basketball as a whole, as their top executive resigned and seen sales of their premier product crater. Price point was the easy culprit to point at—with Kobe Bryant’s and James’s models topping out at $200-plus and Kevin Durant’s reaching $180, it’s likely not wrong. There was also the little matter of Stephen Curry’s Under Armour sales and a general shift away from performance basketball shoes as fashion that’s been happening ever since the second wave of Air Jordan retros hit around the turn of the millennium. The problems have been well documented, even by us.
Winning, as Nike themselves once said, takes care of everything. Well, maybe not in Tiger Woods’s case. But for LeBron and the Cavaliers, this was huge. Kyrie Irving, whose $120 signature shoe was already moving units, made himself even more of a household name with back-to-back-to-back elite performances in Games 3, 4, and 5, and the cold-blooded series-deciding three-pointer in Game 7. If Nike chooses to do a championship pack with a Kyrie 2 and a LeBron 13—or a Soldier 10—one suspects it will sell out immediately.
But those packs are just sneakerhead stuff, in the bubble as footwear analyst Matt Powell would say, with no real-world reverberations. He’s probably right. That’s fine. But Powell also asserts that championships don’t affect sales—and maybe the numbers don’t show a definite correlation—but I find that hard to believe.
Curry’s Under Armour sales may have initially taken off thanks to his (and the Warriors) style of play, but their championship last year is what cemented his and their greatness. Without that, Curry is a curiosity. Championships verify. And while the right marketing campaigns (and the right product) can move units without one—think Charles Barkley and Penny Hardaway—a title gives a marketing campaign something more solid to hang on, ties good product to even better memories. Championships matter. It’s no coincidence that the best shoe salesman to ever live won six.
The championship does something else, as James fulfils the promise he made to the city of Cleveland less than two years ago. He said back in the fall of 2014 that a retro line wasn’t in the works yet, but it’s hard to imagine what would be stopping him now. He’s back where it all started, title dream fulfilled. What better time to revisit the beginning of his line? He even wore some early models to practice during the Finals and a pair of 2s at today’s parade. If performance basketball as a whole is dropping as a category, as some believe, why not retro LeBron now?
It’s true that Jordan retros didn’t happen until Michael retired, but there are a lot of similarities between the LeBron line in 2016 and the Jordan line around 2000. The past few performance models have been expensive, technical, and—compared to earlier models—haven’t sold as well. Think of the Air Jordan XV, XVI, XVII. What better way to capitalize on the LeBron name than by finally retroing the Air Zoom Generation, which sold for $110 back in 2003? It’s already been out of production longer than any of the first five Air Jordans were when they were retroed for the first time, and compared to the molded and mesh construction of current LeBron’s, it’s decidedly a vintage look. And even if LeBron himself doesn’t wear it in games, undoubtedly other players will.
Signature basketball shoes won’t ever again be as important as they were in the ‘90s, LeBron won’t be another Jordan. Some of his retros will sell out immediately, others won’t. There are some (the IV, cough) that people SAY they want, but might not buy once they return to shelves. Nike Basketball still has some work to do moving forward, no doubt. But James, by bringing a title to the Land, just made a lot of people’s jobs a lot easier. All hail the King.