A little more than a year ago, officials at New Balance approached Darius Bazley, a top high school player who’d skipped college to turn professional, about signing an endorsement deal with the company’s basketball division.
There was just one problem.
“When he first had a meeting with us,” said Patrick Cassidy, New Balance’s global director of consumer marketing, “he didn’t have an idea who New Balance was.”
New Balances were on the feet of NBA players such as Lakers star James Worthy in the 1980s, but the company eventually pulled out of the basketball market to focus on its running and lifestyle products. By the time Worthy played his last game, in 1994, Bazley was still six years from being born.
The Boston-based company is no longer hurting for basketball exposure.
Last season, only months after All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard signed with New Balance, he led Toronto to its first NBA championship while wearing sneakers dubbed the OMN1S. For a company seeking to raise awareness about its revived basketball division and create space within a footwear industry dominated by entrenched brands, it was a sports marketing dream — “an incredible boom for us,” Cassidy said — and one New Balance hopes to capitalize on, beginning Tuesday.
When viewers tune in to watch Leonard’s Clippers face the Lakers on the opening night of the NBA regular season, they’ll see an ad campaign centered on the decision of Leonard, a Southern California native, to join the Clippers in free agency in July. In a city where both teams are considered title favorites, it is no mistake New Balance chose a campaign called “Reign Over L.A.”
“It’s the next step in playing off what we see as his super independent spirit,” Cassidy said. “He very clearly wanted to go home. Now he’s found his way home. This is his next chapter.”
The Rec League, a sports-focused creative and production agency based in Los Angeles, conceived and produced the campaign, which takes Leonard from a basketball court to a driving tour around Los Angeles.
For New Balance, bringing basketball back was another winding road.
In its attempt to be known as more than just a running company, it entered the global soccer market seven years ago. Encouraged, officials saw basketball as its next business opportunity, and planning began three years ago for an uphill climb cracking a market dominated by Nike, Jordan Brand and Adidas, with Under Armour making inroads in recent seasons.
New Balance, meanwhile, still had to explain who they were to potential endorsers.
“There are tons of brands that have either tried to launch basketball or have launched and disappeared very quickly or never even made it out of the gate,” Cassidy said. “The graveyard of those brands is full. The thing that connects them all is they’ve all tried to do the same thing and it just doesn’t work. How are we going to build basketball in a unique way?”
To sustain its basketball division and avoid the brand graveyard, New Balance’s 10- and 15-year plan never began with becoming “the No. 1 basketball brand in terms of market share globally overnight,” Cassidy said. Instead of targeting dozens of endorsers, New Balance might sign between only five and 10 over the next decade, he added.
The company started by signing Bazley, who became an intern at the company’s headquarters while training for the NBA — he was drafted by Oklahoma City in June — but he was still an up-and-coming player.
It’s why Leonard’s immediate championship run wearing New Balances provided instant credibility and exposure, Cassidy said.
“To have our very first shoe validated by an NBA champion and Finals MVP who just kind of rampaged his way through the playoffs in an unbelievable fashion?” he said. “Performance credentials right out of the gate.”
Instead of flooding shelves with shoes after the championship, the private company is holding off until Wednesday to release the first of seven OMN1S colorways, a bet that Leonard’s fans will still be drawn to him.
Of course, another Leonard-led championship wouldn’t hurt exposure, either.