Unless you’re a fairly knowledgeable basketball fan, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of former Toronto Raptor and San Antonio Spur, Matt Bonner. There’s a reason for this. Bonner’s play was simple to the point of bordering on dull. He was a three-point specialist who could make open shots and defend competently, which is an important, but largely forgettable role. NBA teams want guys like Bonner though. Role players are the unsung heroes of successful franchises, going about their business quietly and getting the job done on the court when their number is called. It makes sense that a role player like Matt Bonner would have a long, prosperous NBA career. It does not make sense, however, that a role player like Matt Bonner would get a signature shoe. That is of course, if that shoe company was any brand other than New Balance.
In 2010, New Balance signed Matt Bonner to an exclusive deal, making him the first NBA player to be sponsored by the brand since the legendary James Worthy in 1982. He was the only Association player rocking the shoes at the time, which made his signing an odd choice, considering his lack of traditional marketability. Matt Bonner’s official partnership with New Balance came to an unceremonious end that season after a prototype shoe he wore fell apart mid-game. The negative media attention associated with the event likely caused the company’s decision to end their sponsorship with Bonner, and shortly thereafter, their entire basketball venture. It took 8 years for New Balance to regroup following Bonner’s shoe malfunction, but when they did, they came through with a signing that blew the Center’s 2010-deal out of the water. They landed Kawhi Leonard.
Unlike the case of Matt Bonner, you don’t need to be a fairly knowledgeable NBA fan to know who Kawhi Leonard is. He’s a household name. With multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, a Finals MVP, and a so-far legendary 2019 Playoff run to his name, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the Toronto Raptors Small Forward. And this is exactly what New Balance was banking on.
When Kawhi’s signature, limited-edition OMN1S dropped on New Balance’s website on May 7th at 7PM EST, they sold out in less than a minute. Reminder that this was before his game 7 buzzer beater against the Sixers, series victory over the Bucks, and current command of the NBA Finals. It’s clear that Leonard’s NBA dominance in recent years made him a hot prospect for companies looking to partner with his brand, but New Balance’s interest stemmed from something deeper. According to Alicja Siekierska of Yahoo Finance, the shoe company wanted “somebody who had a creative vision, who wanted to be engaged and almost be an entrepreneur and help build this category for us….a truly independent thinker in a sea of sameness.” In the sports marketing world of today, athletes with larger-than-life personas are highly sought after. LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Joel Embiid have inked major endorsement deals for themselves by making a notable impact on and off the court. For years, this has been a proven model for advertising success. That is, until Kawhi came along.
Leonard’s impact on New Balance shoe sales means the end of an era of traditionally marketable NBA superstars. He proves that you don’t need to be outspoken or extroverted for people to latch on to your brand. All that matters is that you win. When you break down Kawhi Leonard and New Balance for what they are, the pairing makes perfect sense. Kawhi isn’t flashy. He’s quiet, mild-mannered and let’s his game do the talking for him. New Balance is the same. It’s a company founded on the principle that proper fit and arch-support, not style, play the biggest role in athletic success. This aspect of their partnership was embraced in one of the many billboards New Balance placed throughout downtown Toronto, and has been played up since Leonard’s exciting Finals play took the sporting world by storm. The success of these ads not only justify the pair’s business relationship in the short term, but serve as a predictor of long-term prosperity that could affect on and off-court fashion for years to come.
Kawhi is the only NBA player New Balance sponsors right now, but all of that could change within the coming days. He’s on the cusp of a Finals victory, and the spotlight has never shined brighter on the shoe company he represents. The entire NBA is watching, waiting to see if Kawhi and his high-top, red and white colorway OMN1S can will the Toronto Raptors to victory and unseat a dynasty. If Kawhi can defeat the Warriors, his greatness will be more apparent than ever before. His profile will rise, and New Balance with him. This brand ascension can mean a changing of the guard in terms of sponsorships. More players will open their eyes to the idea that you don’t need Nike or Adidas to reach basketball’s peak. Players who lack the flair of big-time superstars will flock to the company that asks nothing more of their sponsored athletes than to win. Maybe sweat suits emblazoned with players’ sponsored companies will replace the designer fashion NBA players rock on their way to their game day locker rooms. None of this is certain. All we know for sure is that Kawhi has single handedly made New Balance relevant again. The only question that remains? Whether or not he can bring his city a championship, and take New Balance into the upper-echelon.