When NBA star Kawhi Leonard signed with New Balance in November 2018, the Boston-based brand hadn’t made a basketball sneaker since its James Worthy days of the 1980s. But that doesn’t mean it hadn’t been working for years on what would become the Leonard-worn OMN1S.
Signing two athletes—New Balance first agreed to a deal with Darius Bazley, an athlete who skipped college the year before being eligible for the NBA draft—ahead of releasing a shoe, and then waiting to offer consumer product until fall 2019, comes as part of the New Balance strategy, one that stands apart from other brands trying to make inroads in the highly competitive world of basketball sneakers.
“The goal was not only long-term sustainability and steady growth, but to do this in a way that was unique and true to New Balance,” says Patrick Cassidy, director of consumer marketing for New Balance. “We have seen the rise and fall of lots of brands trying to do basketball the same way. We wanted to build a plan true and unique to us.”
That starts with product and athlete recruitment, both of which have been ongoing for years. “It was about finding the absolutely right athletes,” Cassidy says. “We were not just going to go out and find athletes to get shoes on their feet. That was a recipe for disaster, specifically for how we want to do it. Our goal was to go out and find a specific type of athlete to partner with, ones who wants to do things differently and not follow the same blueprint as their peers.”
Leonard and Bazley both offer distinctive approaches to basketball life (Leonard, previously in San Antonio and now playing for the Raptors in Toronto, is known for his reserved personality). New Balance wants to showcase that approach in its own marketing. As a privately owned, independent company, it plans to not flood the market and sell as many shoes as possible out of the gate, instead going for a curated strategy.
“There is no part of our long-term strategy to be the biggest brand in basketball,” Cassidy says. “We don’t need it. We want to signify we are different. We don’t want to be the biggest, we want to be the best.”
Don’t expect New Balance to ever sign 50, let alone 100, players, instead finding a small batch of athletes to go with a small, but quality-driven, line of on-court shoes.
Entering the basketball world, currently dominated by Nike and Nike’s Jordan Brand, New Balance joins the likes of Adidas, Under Armour and also Puma, which just joined basketball again this summer by signing several NBA rookies and DeMarcus Cousins. Knowing that the basketball market offers the “most vicious and most difficult to enter and sustain in all of sports,” the game wasn’t about spending, but about playing smart.
Instead of investments for New Balance in AAU or college deals — the paths others have taken trying to enter the market, Cassidy says — New Balance will focus on the right athletes and specific global partnerships. Expect China to play in that. “China is obviously a massive prize for everybody, it is a must-win, not just for New Balance but for every brand,” Cassidy says. Already with thousands of stores in China and growing by the day, New Balance already has a stronghold in the country. “We want to be one of the top global sports brands and you can’t really have that without basketball,” Cassidy says. “Being in global basketball is an important piece of the puzzle.”
A few years ago, New Balance entered global football (soccer) and now with basketball, New Balance wants to win in places like China to cement their status. New Balance routinely ranks in the top-five shoe-selling brands in the United States — running is the top market for the 113-year-old brand — and is as high as third globally.
New Balance, though, is early in the basketball process. The reentry started with the signing of Bazley and then, on a much larger scale, Leonard. Then came a chance to own the conversation of basketball sneakers during February’s All-Star weekend when they first released a bevy of colorways (six) of the OMN1S for Leonard to choose among during the weekend. “We are building daily credibility in the space and when someone like Kawhi comes into your life as a brand, we want him in the best performance product in the world,” Cassidy says. “We have been building product for him (product development is almost three years old) and it was ready at the right time for the biggest cultural moment on the calendar in that very crowded weekend, which was great. Now, how do we execute that offering for the rest of the world.”
Expect the larger retail launch for fall 2019, full of both sneakers and lifestyle product, although Cassidy did tease that they will have other opportunities for consumers between now and fall. With basketball arguably having the largest off-court lifestyle movement of any sport, Cassidy says the strength of the brand’s global lifestyle business allows New Balance to not reinvent a lifestyle business. “It is what we do every day, a natural connection,” he says. “We will draw a tighter connection between basketball on court and off court moving forward.”
From performance to lifestyle and from Leonard in Toronto to retail outlets in China, those basketball-specific connections for New Balance will only grow under the brand’s singular perspective.