The late Kobe Bryant was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Saturday as part of the most accomplished class in the history of the Springfield, Mass., shrine. Inductees Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are three of only six players selected for at least 15 All-Star Games, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.
There is no disputing Bryant’s place as one of the sport’s all-time greats 16 months after the tragic helicopter accident that killed the five-time NBA champion, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people. Less clear is the future of his shoe brand after his estate and Nike parted ways last month, ending an 18-year relationship.
“My hope will always be to allow Kobe’s fans to get and wear his products,” his widow, Vanessa Bryant, said in a statement in April. “I will continue to fight for that. Kobe’s products sell out in seconds. That says everything. I was hoping to forge a lifelong partnership with Nike that reflects my husband’s legacy. We will always do everything we can to honor Kobe and Gigi’s legacies. That will never change.”
Sources indicated that Vanessa was unhappy with how much product Nike distributed during Kobe’s five-year retirement contract with the Swoosh. The reality is that few retired NBA players move much product outside of Michael Jordan, whose brand generates nearly $4 billion in revenue annually for Nike. Even then, only a small fraction of that is derived from new models, as retro and lifestyle shoes from MJ’s playing days drive most of the revenue.
But according to the Baller Shoes DB database, Bryant’s Nike sneakers were the most popular signature model for pros to wear during the 2019-20 season. Yet creating a new Bryant shoe business from scratch or through a partnership with another sports company would still be a major challenge.
“They would have to build product from the ground up,” said Matt Powell, analyst at market research firm NPD Group. “You have to have really deep pockets, as the development costs of making a shoe are extremely high.” Powell points to how most men’s shoes come in 20 sizes, which require 20 different “lasts,” the expensive molds around which shoes are built. You also need the same number of outsoles, the bottom part of the shoe.
“It is very expensive, and the market wants new and fresh all the time, which means you’ve got to keep reinvesting,” Powell said. “It is why you don’t see new shoe brands popping up all the time.”
Nike is the dominant player in basketball with an 86% share of performance sneakers, including the Jordan Brand, and 96% of the U.S. retro business, according to the NPD Retail Tracking Service.
Powell thinks a reunion with Nike makes the most sense for Bryant’s estate, and Cowen & Co. analyst John Kernan agrees. “There is really no one else out there that would be able to handle it,” said Kernan. “Nike has the scale and creative behind it to keep it relevant. I think Nike is the smart place for that brand to stay.”
Nike held a raffle last week to give fans a chance to buy its Kobe 5 Protro “Hall of Fame” collaboration. The predominantly gold color scheme is a nod to the hardware Bryant collected during his 20-year career. It was more widely available on Saturday via the Nike SNKRS app.
Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar disclosed in a series of tweets last year that he met with Bryant in December 2019 about starting a new shoe brand. “Kobe wasn’t happy with Nike and was going to leave it in 2020,” tweeted the serial entrepreneur. “Kobe was going to start Mamba, a shoe company owned by players. He passed away weeks later. What he was about to do in business was going to eclipse his sports career.”
Vanessa Bryant launched the Mambacita clothing line on May 1, with proceeds directed to the nonprofit she founded in the memory of Kobe and Gianna. Mambacita was Gianna’s nickname. Kobe’s estate has filed 13 new trademarks, per trademark specialist and lawyer Josh Gerben, and there are more opportunities for his estate to expand its apparel offerings. But a shoe business with any kind of scale is a different animal.
Kobe spent his first six years with Adidas before joining the Nike family in 2003 and had one of the NBA’s top-earning shoe deals for most of his career. Bryant embraced the constant on-court comparisons to Jordan, and he nearly equaled MJ’s six titles, but Mamba was no match in the shoe game. MJ dwarfed Kobe by roughly 20-to-1 in sales for Nike. “Kobe was a big deal in China but was never a big force in footwear in the U.S.,” said Powell.