The Most Influential Sneaker Personalities in Sports

  • LeBron James

    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    LeBron James

    The question isn’t whether LeBron James is influential; $340 million in sneaker sales and nearly 10 million Instagram followers confirm that. The question is how long it will last. We’ve pondered here whether LeBron can carve out a legacy similar to Michael Jordan, and the thinking is that he can, but he’ll always be playing catch-up. Still, LeBron is no youngster, and though Jordan pulled it off, it’s not easy to keep yourself a household name after your final jump shot.

    That said, since his watershed days as a sneaker free agent at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, James has steadfastly made himself synonymous with modern Nike footwear. He has tools at his disposal that Jordan never had to control his message. LeBron’s business sense has also matured as he’s gotten older; we’d tentatively wager that his current status as a Nike tastemaker will continue to evolve and endure for generations to come.

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  • Kustoo

    There are lots of people with YouTube channels and Instagram feeds who are considered influencers. It’s simple: Brands send them product, they make videos unboxing it, and their followers are presumably impressed enough to invest in that product.

    A couple things set Jacques Slade apart. The first is that he’s really good at what he does, as evidenced by the work he’s done for various outlets. (Witness his stellar interview with Kendrick Lamar after his Reebok ZPump event.) But perhaps more importantly, Kustoo is a genuinely good guy who offers a positive voice in a community that often lends itself to categorical cynicism.

    The fact is, we need people like Kustoo to not just drop knowledge in a compelling manner, but to raise the level of the entire discourse. Slade has come a long way in a few years — I mean, the guy played ball at Michael Jordan’s house — and we’d all stand to benefit if his influence continues to grow.

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  • Tinker Hatfield Nike Air Max

    Nike

    Tinker Hatfield

    At the grand opening of the Pearl Pavilion on All-Star Weekend, there were a lot of interesting attractions to draw your attention, most notably an entire LED room where you could simulate Michael Jordan’s signature moments in front of a virtual crowd. But perhaps the most worthwhile was the question-and-answer session with Tinker Hatfield. Quite simply, when the most accomplished designer in sneaker history talks, you’re best served to listen.

    Hatfield would be royalty if you solely consider all the classic Air Jordans he gave the world, including his personal favorite, the XI. But then, that would be omitting all the Air Maxes, the Air Raid, the Huarache, and the fact that he was the primary architect of Oregon’s groundbreaking football jerseys. Michael Jordan’s role in creating a pre-eminent sneaker monolith can’t be discounted, and nobody does that. But it’s hard to say Nike would have reached the heights it did without Tinker pulling the strings.

    The fact is, when Nike really needs to hit a home run — XX, XX3, XX8, XX9 — Tinker remains their go-to. As such, he remains a significant voice in the industry and should continue to be for years to come.

    “The shoes we created over the years were not contrived from a contemporary fad or flavor-of-the-month thing. There is a pure foundation,” Hatfield said in the book Driven From Within. “I am most critical of the design work when I see someone throwing elements onto shoes just to make them look cool.

    “There has to be a soul to the process. There has to be a real story.”

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  • Meb Keflezighi

    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Meb Keflezighi

    To me at least, running isn’t usually a spectator sport. I’m a relatively avid jogger — I’ve run two marathons — and I’d only actually attend a race to support a friend.

    That said, from Michael Johnson to Usain Bolt, elite runners do tend to be influential for weekend warriors. Look no further than Meb Keflezighi, one of the greatest American distance runners of all time. When Meb won the 2014 Boston Marathon wearing Skechers GoMeb Speed 3s, it called attention to a brand that most weekend warriors previously associated with Kim Kardashian’s snake-oil Shape-ups.

    Skechers became — in the words of sneaker business aficionado Matt Powell — “the hottest brand in the U.S.” last May, when it became the fifth-biggest sneaker company, passing longtime mainstay New Balance. Granted, a lot of that comes from walking shoes, where Skechers controls 50 percent of the market share, and the groundwork for this surge was laid well before Meb hit Heartbreak Hill. But Meb definitely helped support the brand’s visibility.

    Nike won’t be looking over its shoulder any time soon, but the fact remains: Meb instantly became the face of a rapidly growing voice in footwear. And he got a whole lot of runners interested in a brand they’d never have considered otherwise. Not bad at all.

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  • Nightwing

    Somewhere along the line, most basketball sneakers stopped being used for their intended purpose. But for anyone hoping to actually, you know, play ball in their sneakers, Nightwing’s sneaker review videos and blogs at Weartesters are invaluable.

    Like Kustoo, Nightwing provides a useful service while fostering an attitude of inclusion, typically taking the time to answer numerous specific questions about a sneaker’s fit or performance. He’s not afraid to give his honest opinion, which means he’s earned the trust of viewers and brands alike. And he’s an advocate and confidant for up-and-coming brands; witness his close ties to Brandblack.

    Perhaps most importantly, Nightwing is an important example that good things can happen to good people, especially when they find their niche and have passion for what they do.

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  • Air Jordan XX9

    @Jumpman23

    Michael Jordan

    The funny part is, if Michael Jordan decides to buy some island and become a recluse — for all I know, he already owns one or two — his eponymous Nike offshoot brand would still do just fine. By this point, Jordan Brand has become a formidable entity all its own, generating $2.5 billion in sales.

    And yet, M.J. himself still holds significant cache. At the Jordan Brand Classic All-American Game last week, basically every top recruit discussed how much of an inspiration he was, both on court and with his personal brand.

    “When you think of Michael Jordan, you just think of the greatest player pretty much ever to touch a basketball,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “And the way he brands himself and how he came with the Jordan Brand and what it is today — $2-plus billion a year. It’s just phenomenal the way he’s taken just a shoe, and made it worldwide.”

    So long as the next generation continues to understand why Michael Jordan is a big deal, he’ll remain relevant. And that can only help his brand maintain its lofty perch.

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  • David Raysse

    It takes guts to branch out on your own, especially in an industry so thoroughly dominated by one particular company. Luckily, Brandblack founder/designer David Raysse has not just confidence in his vision, but a world of talent and initiative.

    Raysse brought an impressive resume to his new endeavor; he previously designed classics like the Fila Grant Hill 2 and the Go Run line for Skechers that the aforementioned Meb Keflezighi has made famous. Endorsed by Jamal Crawford, Brandblack uses only premium materials — you can easily feel and smell the difference in the leather — and maximizes both form and function.

    “I felt like I had gotten to a point where I could not design the kinds of products that I wanted to for one reason or another at other companies,” Raysse told me last year. “There were always layers of bureaucracy and decisions that make it really challenging for new ideas to cut through because there’s a lot at stake.

    “I think for me, I care very deeply about what it is I’m designing. I really care about the culture, and I care about good design, I think that’s the most important thing.”

    The fact is, no matter how much we like one individual concept or entity, it’s always welcome to hear independent voices that bring something new and fresh to the table. Brandblack has carved out a nice niche as a counterculture alternative to the status quo. It’s a great thing for everyone if Raysse’s voice continues to grow in volume and significance.

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  • Kanye West, Big Sean KOKO London concert

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    Kanye West

    You frequently see arguments about whether West is influential. As a guy who has admittedly purchased sneakers primarily because he’s worn them, you can obviously see which side I land on.

    Based solely on sales volume, Kanye hasn’t exactly changed the course of the industry. All of his sneakers are extremely limited. It’s not hard to know whether his sneakers would still be so coveted if there were a lot more of them; simple economics tells us they wouldn’t.

    But that doesn’t mean his vision doesn’t carry an immense amount of value. West is a flagship personality for adidas, long one of the most significant brands in footwear. And every single one of his footwear silhouettes has become iconic and instantly recognizable, like them or not.

    West has a tendency to be a sneaker kingmaker. Basketball-wise, he pretty much resurrected the Air Jordan 1 as a menswear staple, and he’s put entire color schemes in vogue. Whether that’s because he has impeccable taste or people just follow in his footsteps, who cares? I’m not here to analyze market share, just to note that his opinions obviously hold weight.

    “We’re constantly growing, we’re constantly building,” West said in a recent interview. “I mean, this is the beginning of something really big. This is the beginning of something truly democratic. You know, I am here to take the best talents from fashion and give them to the people.”

    Whether his lofty ambitions are realistic, he at least has everyone’s attention, plus the desire to move mountains. And from my perspective, I at least own one more pair of the ZX Flux than the zero I probably would’ve had he not cosigned them.

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  • Mike Trout

    Erik Drost/Flickr Creative Commons

    Mike Trout

    Until his retirement last fall, Derek Jeter was baseball’s one true crossover athlete. He was endorsed by Jordan, he played for the Yankees, and he was a winner who exuded class and cool factor.

    With Jeter gone, the logical successor is young Angels superstar Mike Trout. But then, Trout presents a very different scenario. Though Jeter kept to himself, his private life was the subject of endless mystique. Trout, on the other hand, famously heads back to live in his parents’ basement in New Jersey in the offseason – not quite the stuff of breathless gossip columns.

    Trout is a truly transcendent baseball player with Hall of Fame talent, and he’s already got his own Nike shoe line. Jeter left the door wide open for someone to bust it down both on and off the field. The opportunity is there for Trout to become the face of an entire major sport. Let’s see what he does with it.

    image via Erik Drost/Flickr Creative Commons

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  • adidas Superstar

    @adidas

    You

    I realize I’m being a bit hypocritical considering I bought sneakers because Kanye wore them, but for the most part, I really do try to buy what I like and what I think looks good.

    Much like your vote for political office, it doesn’t always seem like you wield power with your own wallet, but you do. No matter what people tell you that you “need,” you are ultimately the best arbiter of your own tastes. Believe me, I realize it’s easy to get caught up in a wave of hype, but nobody forces you to buy or not to buy anything. If you keep that in mind, your ultimate influencer is none other than yourself – and there’s no better feeling than that.

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  • LeBron James
  • Kustoo
  • Tinker Hatfield Nike Air Max
  • Meb Keflezighi
  • Air Jordan XX9
  • Brandblack
  • Kanye West, Big Sean KOKO London concert
  • Mike Trout
  • adidas Superstar

I still remember the feeling of lacing up my first Air Jordans, the OG Cardinal VIIs when I was in eighth grade. I wasn’t even a Michael Jordan guy back then – no self-respecting Knicks fan in North Jersey would cop to that – but I had to admit the guy was pretty dang cool. Wearing what Jordan himself would wear, I truly felt on top of the world. I even felt like I was instantly better at basketball. (I wasn’t.)

All these years later, M.J. still holds major sway over people’s wallets and sensibilities, but he’s far from alone, thanks to the advent of social media and the proliferation of blogs. Between athletes, entertainers, and people who simply take great Instagram photos, our roster of potential influencers has grown exponentially. In this day and age, it’s never enough to have a great collection. It’s never enough to cop that new pair or kicks on Saturday morning. After the hard work is done, you’re going home and showing it off by going hard on ‘the gram. That extends from the average high school cat to some of the world’s most mesmerizing athletes.

Of course, there are a few who rise above the rest, people who have earned the right to have a legitimate voice in sneaker culture. The following is our best attempt at characterizing the Most Influential Sneaker Personalities in Sports, in no particular order. That is, except for the last entry, which we consider far and away the most important influencer there is.

BUY NOW: ChampsSports.com

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @sportsangle

image via Nike Basketball