In the NBA, there are two major teams that a player represents: the one that he plays for, and the shoe company that he endorses. Kawhi Leonard has already made a big change in the former, and the same is likely coming for the latter.
Earlier this month, Leonard effectively forced a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. He is now a Toronto Raptor for at least a year, though most expect him to head elsewhere—with the Los Angeles franchises being heavy favorites—next off-season.
One of the factors that has been floated as a frustration for Leonard in San Antonio is his lack of exposure as a superstar. Notably, Leonard is thought of as a top five player in the NBA, but does not have his own signature shoe.
Kawhi is pretty reserved off the court, with little online presence to speak of. We've still barely heard from him directly during this whole Spurs saga. That makes him a difficult superstar to market a signature shoe for.
He has been with Jordan Brand since entering the NBA, but that is set to change as well.
According to ESPN's Nick DePaula, Jordan Brand will not re-sign Kawhi Leonard, and he will be a sneaker free agent this fall.
The former San Antonio Spurs star, who was traded to the Toronto Raptors, has been a Jordan Brand endorser since coming into the league, but industry sources say that the company is going to let Leonard walk when his contract expires later this year. Extension talks between Leonard and the Nike subsidiary stalled earlier this year after Leonard turned down a four-year, $22 million extension.
Leonard's contract is believed to be up on September 30, just ahead of his first season with the Raptors. DePaula says that his personality, of lack thereof, and new team may both be obstacles in getting a giant deal like the $200 million adidas contract that James Harden signed a few years back.
Jordan featured Leonard in its Gatorade-affiliated "Like Mike" campaign at the start of last season to little fanfare -- he's likely best known in the marketing world for his deadpan expressions in local San Antonio grocery store ads. In an era where players can single-handedly flex their star power and promote products on social media, Leonard has also shown little interest in his online presence. His last tweet (of just four total) was three summers ago; he has no Instagram account.
While Leonard's trade sent him from one of the NBA's smallest markets to one of its largest, it also sent him to a different country, which could complicate things from a marketing perspective, on top of the existing questions about Leonard's level of interest in being a pitchman. Would a new company be able to get the historically reserved Leonard to jump in on the arena entry trend, with a series of made-for-social-media-styled outfits that have helped to raise the star power of players around the league? And even if it did, would fans find a sudden pitchman persona contrived and forced, given Leonard's longtime disdain for promotional appearances and public attention?
He won't be alone as a superstar looking for a big new shoe deal either. In many ways, adidas endorser Joel Embiid is the anti-Kawhi, and he will also be a free agent.
Embiid has far less on-court experience and fewer accomplishments, but he has about a million times the effervescent personality, and is much more willing to play the game that Kawhi seems to detest. With more companies looking to jump into the sneaker wars as well, given rumors of New Balance targeting Gordon Hayward and Puma's big moves with this year's rookie class, this will be pretty fascinating to follow this fall.