A Game Of Thrones: Nike LeBron Vs. Air Jordan

Just like I’ll never forget my first pair of Air Jordans–OG Cardinal VIIs, eighth grade–my first pair of LeBrons remains special. A fan since attending two of his high school games, I purchased a pair of Air Zoom Generations from a bodega-style store in Hell’s Kitchen to celebrate landing my first job in sports. Ten years later, I still have the job, not to mention the sneakers, which I break out from time to time.

Besides the auspicious backstory, what stands out about my AZGs is how little I paid. The original retail price was $110, about half of what it is now. I bought my pair off the discount rack for $70, and I can’t believe I didn’t take advantage of the store’s two-for-$120 sale. With LeBron James still a few years from becoming a household name, Nike’s record $90 million endorsement contract for Michael Jordan’s purported successor had seemingly not yet paid dividends.

Obviously, plenty has changed in the decade since LeBron was a rookie. Basketball sneakers have gone from a relative niche product to big business, generating domestic sales of $4.5 billion last year. And with four MVP awards and two NBA titles under his belt, LeBron is now the unquestioned king among current signature athletes, generating an NBA-high $300 million for Nike each of the past two seasons, according to Forbes.

LeBron’s on-court legacy is one of the most oft-discussed NBA topics, with his career constantly measured against Jordan’s. The perpetual debates can be tiresome, but the fact they take place at all is in itself a feather in James’ cap. Essentially, if someone has to go out of their way to insist Jordan remains the greatest ever, it validates LeBron as being firmly in the running.

Likewise, with LeBron’s skyrocketing sneaker sales ranking him second only to Jordan, it’s become reasonable to wonder: will his eponymous brand’s legacy ever approach the rarefied air attained by the Jordan Brand?

Off the bat, it seems foolish to argue LeBron’s line will ever threaten Jordan’s in terms of revenue–so I won’t. A full decade after MJ hung up his XVIIIs for the final time, sneakers emblazoned with a Jumpman brought in a staggering $2.5 billion last year, dwarfing LeBron’s revenue and accounting for 54 percent of all basketball sneakers sold. And it’s not like the Jordan Brand has plateaued; sales increased about 12 percent last year, and with recommitment to OG-style quality in its retros coming for 2015, there’s no reason to expect the gravy train to slow down.

All that said, perhaps the biggest driving force behind the Jordan Brand–retro sneakers–might offer a potential blueprint for LeBron’s brand to grow significantly in the future. About half of Jordan’s sales are derived from retros, according to SportsOneSource’s Matt Powell. That leads indirectly to a whole lot of Team Jordans bought by people who want a piece of the action, but at a lower price point and without having to deal with long lines or quick online sellouts.

Eleven models in, Nike hasn’t yet tapped the retro LeBron market, though they apparently were at least considering it a few years back. (I wish they had done more than just consider it.) As sales skyrocketed in recent years, the drumbeat for retros has slowly but steadily grown louder, spurred by LeBron himself suggesting it might be time to start bringing his classics back with an Instagram photo that received 124,000 likes, for whatever that’s worth.

A potential hurdle is that none of his early models particularly captured the imagination of the public the way those first few iconic Air Jordans did. It also might hamper LeBron that he really doesn’t seem to have specific sneakers easily associated with his most significant on-court moments–no Flu Games, Last Shots or Olympic VIIs.

That said, sneakers are arguably more driven by hype than nostalgia at this point. The majority of people who cop the Infrared VI on Black Friday might have no clue that Jordan wore them while winning his first championship, but they will likely be aware Jay Z wore them on the roof at 560 State Street.

If I pulled the strings for Nike–a guy can dream, right?–I might start by bringing back the eternally coveted South Beach LeBron 8 in limited quantities. After the ensuing frenzy, I’d sit back and watch the demand spiral upward for subsequent re-issues.

It’s hard to imagine a LeBron sneaker that could become a streetwear staple on the level of Black/red Jordan Is or Black/cement IIIs, but there’s at least a chance collectors enamored with the more hyped recent releases will fall in love for the first time when they see the classic stylings of the Zoom LeBron 2 or the Foamposite-infused Zoom LeBron 4 in person.

If Nike keeps pushing the innovation envelope on the annual LeBron game shoe, begins having events like this to introduce it and makes sure he actually wears it in games, the new and old will help sustain each other. It’s hard to imagine LeBron will ever have a year when he sells $2.5 billion in sneakers, but if retros are a hit, $1 billion seems in play down the road, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

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The fact is, like Russ Bengtson wrote recently, to compare LeBron to Jordan–in any regard– is a battle the younger man really can’t win. MJ has the advantage of nostalgia-driven mystique, and he didn’t have to deal with a TMZ-type culture that exists primarily to bring would-be heroes back to Earth. Could Jordan have played through debilitating cramps that knocked LeBron out of Game 1 of the Finals? Certainly not, but it’s like that Incubus song goes: “The older we all get, the better we all were.”

Because James was so good so fast–and since he gets micro-analyzed at every turn–it feels like he has been around forever. But he’s not yet 30. Given that Kobe Bryant didn’t start to break down until he was 35, James most likely has at least another half-decade at or near the pinnacle of his sport to pile up accolades, championships and potentially classic sneakers.

But like everything in life, LeBron’s twilight will arrive way faster than you think. That’s why I watched as much of the NBA Finals as I could, even though the games themselves were kind of a letdown. There’s no way to know exactly how many more years we have with someone as singularly brilliant as LeBron James, and there’s no telling how long it will be until someone like this comes along again.

In terms of LeBron’s legacy–which, honestly, is more his business than ours anyway–I figure he’ll stack up just fine. He could retire tomorrow and still be viewed as one of the greatest players of all time, and someone who regularly picks Warren Buffett’s brain will most likely figure out how to make his brand endure off the court long after he tossed his final chalk cloud into the air.

When Jay Z rapped, “If I’m not better than Big, I’m the closest one,” it demonstrated he knew there was no true way to compete with bygone legends. Instead, he went out to dominate the era he was in, and few would dispute he succeeded.

Likewise, LeBron James will leave a legacy in which he strived to be the greatest ever, both on court and on Madison Avenue, and was genuinely able to become a part of the conversation. It’s difficult–some might say impossible–to ask for anything more.

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