Friday, December 6, 2013

LeBron Can't Let His Old Shoes Go

VIA: Nike Inc. NKE +1.15% 's new, $200-plus LeBron 11 basketball shoes have a lot of fans. But one important customer isn't yet fully sold: LeBron James himself.

In the 18 games played since the season opened, the four-time league MVP has worn the 11s for only two full games, spending most of his time on court wearing last year's LeBron X model.

On a few occasions, including a Nov. 12 matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, Mr. James started the game in his latest shoe but partway through switched into last season's model. During Tuesday night's game against the Detroit Pistons, he sported a version of the older LeBrons from the opening tip.

On Nov. 25, the last time Mr. James wore the 11s for an entire game, he scored 35 points with five rebounds and four assists, leading his Miami Heat over the Phoenix Suns 107-92.

Mr. James's manager, Maverick Carter, said it isn't that the star doesn't like the latest edition of his shoes. Instead, he has been making tweaks to the shoe and expects to return to wearing the 11s full time in a matter of weeks, Mr. Carter said.

"It's not that they hurt," Mr. Carter said of the shoes. "It's just to make the shoe exactly perfect. He's a six-foot-eight, 250 pound guy, he runs at speeds none of us are used to. You don't know until you're in the game."

His shoe choice has raised eyebrows among some who closely follow the U.S. basketball shoe market, which brings in close to $3 billion in retail sales, according to retail analyst Marshal Cohen of NPD Group.

Nike and its proprietary Jordan brand had a 92% share of U.S. basketball shoe market as of last week, according to Matt Powell, an analyst for sporting goods researcher SportsOneSource.

The company has built that position by locking up expensive, high-profile endorsements from stars including Michael Jordan and Mr. James. The Miami Heat star forward's current contract with Nike is worth an estimated $15 million a year, according to Forbes magazine. Nike and Mr. Carter declined to comment on the value of the contract.

Brendan Dunne, an editor at sneaker-watching website, said it is unusual for a high-profile athlete like Mr. James not to regularly wear his latest shoe.

Other high-profile players with signature shoes have for the most part been sticking to their latest models.

Fellow Nike signee and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant has been wearing his KD VI all season. Derrick Rose, a guard for the Chicago Bulls, wore his latest Adidas D Rose 4 shoes each game until he suffered a season-ending injury last month.

In a statement, Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike called the LeBron 11 "one of the most innovative Nike basketball shoes to date, and we look forward to LeBron stepping back on the court in his latest signature shoe soon."

None of this seems to matter to Nike's fans. Unit sales of LeBron 11 sneakers are up 18% so far this season over sales of the LeBron X over the same period a year ago, according to SportsOneSource. Revenue collected from the 11s are up 35% over that period, owing in part to a slight price increase.

"I think it would matter more if he didn't wear it at all," SportsOneSource's Mr. Powell said. Most people purchase LeBrons for fashion rather than performance, he said.

The LeBrons, which retail for upward of $200, are considered by some to be too expensive to wear by the average recreational basketball player.

Mr. James, who has won two NBA titles with the Miami Heat, is one of the highest profile basketball stars since Mr. Jordan last stepped on the court.

Nike signed Mr. James to a sponsorship straight out of high school in 2003 and has released a line of signature LeBron shoes for each year he has played in the NBA. The latest edition went on sale world-wide in October.

Typically, the shoes Mr. James wears on court can differ slightly in color than those that are commercially available, as they are custom built for him. Sneaker watchers can differentiate last year's LeBron X from this year's 11s by looking for a backward-facing swoosh on the outside of the heel on the former model.

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