“James Harden Chooses Adidas.”
That’s how Adidas began a celebratory press release that came out on Thursday announcing the Houston Rockets star James Harden was signing a long-term endorsement deal with the brand.
Harden had a previous deal with Nike, but the deal expired and Adidas offered him a reported $200 million over 13 years. That’s Rory McIlroy money. Or pick your payday: it’s also comparable to the deal Under Armour gave Jordan Spieth this year, and comparable to an even bigger one Adidas gave another hoops star in 2012: Derrick Rose.
That deal didn’t work out so well for Adidas. Rose got injured and missed the entire 2012–13 season, then came back, only to get injured again and miss most of the 2013—14 season. It was bad luck for the player and the brand, but perhaps also bad strategy by the latter. Sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman told Fortune, “God, they gave him too much.”
So has Adidas done it again? Did it pay Harden too much? Nike, with its stable of top basketball stars, deemed it not worth matching Adidas’s offer. Is that a bad sign? Although there was an instant backlash on Twitter, including criticisms of “money wasted,” Matt Powell, sneaker industry analyst for NPD Group, says Adidas made a smart move.
“I think it’s a great acquisition for them,” says Powell. “He’s a big personality. Non-basketball fans know who he is and like him. I think it’s a win.” Powell adds that the trend of a decade ago, where top prospects are signed to a big deal the instant they get drafted, is waning. Instead, brands are waiting a few years to see which players become the most marketable stars, then upgrading them to the big bucks. Endorsement deals in general, too, are diminishing in volume, though the top dogs are getting more money than ever. “The people getting the biggest deals are getting way more money than they used to,” says Powell, “even though brands are spending less in total on athlete endorsements.”
Adidas isn’t spending less. In fact, it’s at the beginning of a ramped-up effort to sign vast quantities of new athlete endorsements in the U.S. The company, which has slipped in recent years to Nike and Under Armour in both footwear and apparel in America, believes that one of the key ways to regain footing (ahem) in the States is through getting its logo onto athletes’ backs, chests and shorts. Mark King, its U.S. president, told Fortune this year at Adidas U.S. headquarters in Portland that the brand plans to sign 500 new MLB and NFL players in the next three years alone. Most of those deals won’t be Harden-type mega-signings, and it is likely that many will only be “equipment deals” (where a player gets gear for free but no fee, or a very small fee), but that is nonetheless a lofty goal.
Adidas has particularly struggled in basketball, so signing Harden is an attempt to get back on the court—especially because, at the end of the next season, Adidas will no longer be the official apparel provider of the league. Nike captured that deal, which expires in 2016. Having had it for the past decade did very little for Adidas: Nike still owns a staggering 96% of the basketball footwear market. Adidas is hoping that having Harden as a brand ambassador can help get American youth to associate the brand with hoops again.
And indeed, an ambassador he will be. In its press release, Adidas says that Harden will get an “off-court signature footwear and apparel collection” and the company will trot him out on “extensive brand tours” in Europe and Asia.
You can bet the brand will market him hard. It needs to prove to others and itself that the money was worth it. As Powell says, “I think they look at each one of these individually and say, ‘What’s the ROI potential,’ and every one has a number on it, and if it’s over that number they’re willing to walk. I think Harden is a great property. But obviously Nike felt they have enough already in their stable.”
Adidas’s new endorsement strategy is a bet that if the company goes for quantity, it will pick up some quality along the way, maybe even from some surprise players—not all expensive James Harden types.
This lucrative deal gives Adidas an established, likable star in its corner. As for what it gives Harden, if you ask Adidas global basketball manager Chris Grancio, it brings the player, “the opportunity to achieve his goals and express himself in a totally new way as a creator… His ceiling is far from reached.” Adidas hopes so.