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Puma's unexpected NBA comeback: 'You can only surprise people once'

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Terry Rozier had a simple message for the basketball and sneaker worlds last week.

"I ain't f-----' with nobody else but Puma."

The declaration from the Boston Celtics guard was quickly worked up into a graphic on the official Instagram account for Puma Basketball, perfectly encapsulating the splash the company is trying to make as it re-enters the NBA market for the first time in 20 seasons.

Puma -- which landed four of the top 15 picks in this year's draft, including top picks Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III -- is offering the chance for players to immediately be the face of a brand, rather than waiting their turn at larger companies.

"Nike is Nike. Adidas is Adidas. I've played in their circuits and stuff like that, but now it's a business," Ayton told Bleacher Report. "You don't want just product. You're not a kid anymore. You're really trying to get bank. That's about it."

The upcoming marketing campaigns, input on future product, quirky social media visibility and, yes, access to "The Puma Jet" -- the brand's new private plane for athletes -- became key factors in appealing to players. It's all part of a plan to revive the Puma Basketball brand, a plan that has been in motion for the past 16 months.


The basketball sneaker industry has become dominated by signature sneakers, with nearly 70 percent of the NBA wearing shoes branded by a group of just 15 players this past season. However, Puma took a different approach when pitching its roster of endorsers.

"The signature model concept, that construct is a little broken, and it needs to be challenged a little bit," said Adam Petrick, Puma's global director of brand and marketing. "I know that has been the motivator for a lot of the basketball business for the last 30 years, but we're trying to do things differently."

In many ways, Puma is learning from the failures of its own past. The company signed 1998-99 Rookie of the Year Vince Carter to a 10-year deal, but saw it come to an end just two years later, leaving Puma with a marketing spend around the lone Vinsanity signature model, and a suddenly dormant basketball category.

Now, as Puma returns to a basketball market competing not just with Nike and Adidas but also Under Armour and a slew of China-based brands, the company is broadening the scope of its NBA roster. In addition to the rookie class and Rozier, who wasn't under contract to any shoe company last season, Puma will aggressively court this year's class of sneaker free agents once those players are able to take meetings beginning Wednesday, hoping to expand the roster to as many as 15 players by the time the season starts.

In addition to marketing commitments and strong cash offers -- the brand has clearly been showing players the much-coveted bag -- the company has also been creative in coming up with additional perks for potential players, with one standing out above the rest:

The Puma Jet.


The Puma Jet's tail numbers -- N444SC -- are by no mistake coding linked to none other than Jay-Z. The N is the standard USA private jet registration code, 444 refers to the rap icon's latest album title and the SC is for his given name, Shawn Carter.

Jay-Z has been around the NBA in some form for more than a decade. He had his own Reebok signature sneaker in 2003, later became a part owner of the Brooklyn Nets and founded Roc Nation Sports in 2013. Now he's a major figure not just in Puma's air travel but in the company's basketball relaunch as a whole.

"We were already working with Roc Nation as a partner in a lot of different ways, so we approached Jay-Z specifically to see if he would be interested in a business partnership around this," Petrick said.

Jay-Z isn't looked at as an influencer or style trendsetter in the way Kanye West or Travis Scott are. Instead, players look to Jay-Z more as a modern kingpin of several industries and have long respected his business savvy. The uniqueness of Jay-Z's transcendence makes the setup unprecedented to begin with.

Jay-Z's role with Puma was first announced as president of Puma Basketball, but when questions were raised about a potential conflict of interest between that role and his role with the Roc Nation Sports agency, his Puma title was modified to creative director, a nebulous designation popular within the sneaker industry.

Jay-Z's exact role remains cloudy, with the brand framing his duties loosely as a "cultural and creative consultant." The initial notion that he'd be providing hands-on direction around which endorsers the brand would sign sparked concern from both rival brands and rival agents, with several complaints voiced to the league's players union, according to sources. Rival agents worried that signing their clients to a deal with Puma could potentially make them vulnerable to flee to Roc Nation, while rival brands have wondered aloud if Roc Nation clients might use Puma pitches to drive up the price on their next Nike or Adidas shoe deals.

However, from Puma's standpoint, even without direct involvement from Jay-Z, the ongoing partnership with Roc Nation has proved mutually beneficial. The pipeline of clients dates to 2013, when then-Roc client Solange Knowles, the sister of Jay-Z's wife, Beyonce, signed with Puma as a brand ambassador. Pop star Rihanna, rapper Big Sean, WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith and NFL players all followed suit.

Puma used that relationship as a testing ground for its return to the NBA, having former Nike athlete Rudy Gay, also a Roc Nation client, test out Puma prototypes and offer up insights to help improve the shoe over the past year.


Even with Jay-Z on board and a company-wide commitment to ample resources, Puma's decision to focus on the performance basketball category comes at a challenging time for the basketball sneaker market as a whole.

Basketball sneaker sales peaked in 2015 at $1.3 billion but fell a whopping 13.6 percent in 2017, according to research from the NPD Group. Detractors down on the category have cited the high cost of player endorsement deals, along with the rising sales of the ongoing athleisure trend. Brand insights have shown that less than 10 percent of basketball sneakers sold are actually put to their intended use, with the majority of Nike and Jordan Brand pairs worn off the court.

"Considering how much marketing dollars brands devoted to the performance category beginning this year, this result is disappointing," NPD Group analyst Matt Powell said.

For Puma, that murky market for performance sneakers has impacted how the brand will be designing its basketball shoes going forward.

"We're always going to take a hybridized approach and bring our most elite innovation and technology and put them into products that should look great," Petrick said.

Its first sneaker of the rebirth is a modernized knit take on the industry's first signature shoe, the Puma Clyde. Originally made for New York Knicks Hall of Fame point guard Walt "Clyde" Frazier in 1973, the sneaker has had a long life as a lifestyle shoe with a timeless look. The Clyde Court Disrupt, styled by the brand's former head of design Sean O'Shea, will be launching this October for $120 and worn by all of Puma's NBA endorsers.

While basketball may be down stateside, Puma is looking overseas to China, where it will open between 400 to 600 stores per year in the country, hoping to make the country Puma's top market by 2022. For now, Puma is well short of its competitors across the massive region, with total sales under $500 million, compared to the $4 billion each in sales by Nike and Adidas, according to Wedbush Securities estimates. Skechers and New Balance are also larger.

While the NPD Group is skeptical of Puma's prospects and the basketball market and endorsement model at large, Wedbush Securities footwear and apparel analyst Christopher Svezia remains more hopeful.

"In our view, the brand has a strong strategy that should be able to leverage key cultural influencers, like Jay-Z, and athletes to break into the basketball category, while also accelerating the men's business," Szevia said.


While the revamped Clyde Court has been in development for more than a year, the athletes signed to the brand during the week of the NBA draft only had a matter of weeks before they began summer league play with their new teams. By his second summer game in a Phoenix Suns uniform, Ayton was curiously wearing a pair of the Nike Kobe AD with a blacked-out Swoosh, sparking instant questions on social media.

"We didn't want him to do anything that was pushing his limits of comfort," said Petrick of allowing Ayton to ditch the prototype Pumas and go back to a shoe he felt more comfortable playing in.

Puma is working with Ayton on fine-tuning his pairs. According to those close to the 7-footer, the underfoot feel is fine and he likes the overall comfort, but he's in need of a more snug fit through the forefoot of the shoe in order to feel fully secure on the floor.

"Fit is an important aspect of any basketball shoe," said Petrick, adding that Ayton's size-18 feet "bends the spectrum of what's typical in shoes."

Ayton first wore the Clyde Court model just before the draft during a private workout in Phoenix. Custom sneakers for players can often take anywhere from three to six weeks on a quick-turn timeline to arrive from overseas factories.

Both sides met on a few occasions right away to work toward getting things right. While Ayton spent most of summer league in Nikes, Puma has little concern that he'll need to resort to that in the regular season.

"One of the things we've been working with him on is creating a product that has the exact same feel at a size 18 as it does at a size 11," said Petrick. "That's a challenge."

That same challenge, at least from a marketing perspective, manifested itself again later in July.

Puma partnered this summer with The Basketball Tournament, a $2 million winner-take-all tourney featuring more than 60 players with NBA experience and 27 college alumni teams. The brand's cat logo is highlighted on all uniforms, along with ample visibility on courtside displays.

The tournament's dunk contest winner, Marcus Lewis, earned a $40,000 check, along with an upcoming billboard in Times Square. He happened to be wearing Nikes during his aerial display, so Puma made a slight update when celebrating his win on Twitter.

That unpolished, raw approach to its marketing has been a part of the plan to cut through the sometimes stale and stagnant corporate social media space.

While brands typically never comment on players currently signed to other brands, the @PumaHoops Instagram account re-posted a Kawhi Leonard-themed meme featuring Jay-Z looking over the shoulder of the character Jim Halpert from "The Office" after it was reported that Jordan Brand would be moving on from Leonard once his shoe deal expires this October.

"The goal right now is to get players to think about Puma in a new way," Petrick said. "Maybe they're familiar with us as a classics brand, or as a fashion brand. If we're lucky, maybe they know us as a training brand -- but they aren't familiar with us as a basketball brand yet."

With months of lead-up to still work on that awareness before the Clyde Court is released in October, Puma is planning to make the shoe readily available in a variety of team and energy colorways, supported by its full roster of NBA players and off-court entertainers.

"We're a newcomer," Petrick said. "What we've discussed is that you can only surprise people once."