Kyle Lowry just wanted something he could put on his shoes, something that made them feel like they were his. He didn’t know that he’d inspire a movement that’s inescapable during the Eastern Conference finals. He didn’t know he’d empower his young teammates to take control of their marketing futures, that he’d get them thinking about brand exposure.
No, the 33-year-old, 13-year veteran wasn’t trying to move any merchandise. He just wanted to slap a “KL” on the tongue of his sneakers and on the side of his hat.
“I don’t have a brand,” Lowry said laughing. “I’ve just got a logo.”
But Raptors teammates Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam — wanted both. They, like a number of NBA players, aren’t waiting for major basketball shoe and apparel companies to give it to them.
“In the time I’ve been the business, 17 years, the only way you’d get a logo is if your shoe company made one for you,” said Greg Lawrence, an NBA agent at Wasserman. “And there were four or five guys that had signature products and had their own logo.”
Now, it’s easier.
Thanks to ambition combined with the ability to market directly to fans on social media and gain exposure in postgame interviews, things that have traditionally been reserved for only the league’s biggest stars are now on the hats, shirts, sweats and sandals of its role players.
“Coming into the league undrafted, that whole thing translated to my marketing deals. I signed a merchandise deal with Adidas where they provided some gear and game stuff but nothing crazy,” VanVleet said. “The top of those companies, they have the LeBrons, the Kyries, and they have signature lines.
“They weren’t going to give Fred VanVleet a signature line — for good reason — so I just made my own.”
VanVleet saw Lowry’s “KL” and decided he could do the same thing too. He grabbed a notebook and started trying to find the best way his initials could be combined into a workable logo.
“It was mostly all bad ideas,” VanVleet said. “I have no artistic ability. You’d be surprised how hard it is to get an F and a V to make something that looks any type of cool. I was trying cursive F’s. It was bad.”
VanVleet finally got something figured out, sent it to a friend who worked as a graphic designer and boom, like Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Fred VanVleet had himself a logo.
Now three years into his career, VanVleet’s line — complete with a “Bet on Yourself” slogan — is making him real money, enough to pay a handful of employees. You can buy shirts, hats, shorts, jackets and pants featuring his logo.
It’s a personal touch that connects VanVleet to his fans.
“You see Nike more than you could imagine. And you don't think about it. But Jordan? That’s a little different,” VanVleet said. “Every time you see the logo, you think of the person. People connect with that. It’s a similar thing for me. It was something for myself, and then I saw my family wanted it. And that grew to friends. And then back [home] in Rockford [Ill.], I'm kind of a big thing. That grew from there.”
It’s sound reasoning, USC sports business associate professor David Carter said.
“Athletes are increasingly trying to establish their personal brands in the hopes of extending them in a way that differentiates themselves from other athletes,” Carter said in an email. “Done properly, this can lead to a unique brand that they can monetize. Creating a customized logo that resonates with fans can certainly help in this regard.”
With the expansion of social networking, it’s easier than ever for someone like VanVleet to get his brand out there. There’s Twitter. There’s Instagram. And there’s postgame news conferences where you’re the center of attention.
During the Game 4 postgame interviews, Siakam and VanVleet each wore a hat with Siakam’s new logo on it. Lowry’s hat postgame had his signature “KL.” And Powell, who made a surprise appearance at the main podium after an 18-point game, made sure to put his customized leather dopp kit on the table with him, his logo facing directly at the cameras.
“I saw Fred do it. I always thought about branding myself, but once I saw Fred do it, it intrigued me. … I had the idea — but seeing him manifest the idea and use it, it made me want to do it too,” Siakam said.
“I thought about the exposure, people seeing it. I think it's just, the logo is catchy. You see it and it looks like a heart and it’s appealing to people. The more you can put it out there for people to see, the better.”
It’s something that the players’ union, the National Basketball Players Assn., is firmly behind.
“I think the NBPA did a great job in our meeting during the rookie transition program, talking to us with former players and different programs that they have where we can build these things ourselves, carrying ourselves as a brand. Everyone in the league is their own brand,” Powell said. “It gets ideas turning in a guy’s head.”
It’s only getting bigger. While VanVleet inspired Powell and Siakam to create their own branded logos, Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe also has one. Portland big man Meyers Leonard did his end-of-the-season media session wearing a hat with his initials on it.
Lawrence said even the country’s top high school prospects have access to advanced graphic designs and logos. And there’ll probably be a time when the top player entering the NBA will already have a recognizable logo that he’ll bring with him to whatever shoe company signs him.
“It hasn’t really happened before,” Lawrence said. “But I think it will.”
Until then, it’ll be on the league’s players who don’t have the top brands fighting to put their logos on shoes to take control of it on their own.
“Its cool. It’s something you dream about,” Bledsoe said. “I’m in a good place, a good place where it can be noticed a little bit. It represents my brand. It’s not somebody else’s. it's 100% mine.
“It’s my brand. Wherever it goes, it goes. But it’s mine. I can do whatever.”