After playing out the sneaker free agency process well into this season, Chicago Bulls All-Star guard Zach LaVine has signed a multiyear footwear and apparel endorsement deal with New Balance that is set to make him one of the faces of its recently relaunched basketball business.
“The more and more the process went along, I started to align myself with New Balance and figured out that this is somewhere that I really want to be at,” LaVine said.
A member of the USA Olympic team that competed in Tokyo late into the summer of 2021, LaVine and his representation at Klutch Sports began their shoe negotiations with several brands just before the start of the NBA season in the fall.
Fresh off his first All-Star selection in 2021, the 6-foot-5 high-flier and two-time slam dunk contest champion received interest from a variety of brands before eventually deciding on New Balance just as he was named to his second All-Star appearance this year.
LaVine’s previous shoe deal with Adidas expired on Oct. 1, 2021, creating a “sneaker free agency” period during the season, when he wore shoes from Nike, Jordan, Converse, New Balance and Adidas both on and off the court. In all, he wore 36 different pairs of sneakers this season before officially landing his New Balance contract this week.
The 27-year-old relied on his experience navigating the shoe deal process both as a rookie in 2014 when he signed with Nike, and again in 2017 when he signed with Adidas. This new five-year deal with New Balance, signed during LaVine’s eighth NBA season, will extend into his 30s.
“There’s so many different factors that go into aligning with a brand and being partnered with them,” he said. “Whether it’s more about what is flashy, what you like, or if there’s any outside things that are pushing you in a certain direction. This was a lot more of a personal decision and a more educated experience for me.
“I feel like this time was a little different, going around for a second time [as a veteran] and being able to find something that I really, truly enjoyed being partnered with.”
Between its Nike, Jordan and Converse brands, Nike Inc. counts for nearly 70% of the NBA as brand endorsers. Adidas features several dozen players, five of whom have signature shoes.
After more than a decade away from the league, New Balance relaunched its basketball category in late 2018. When LaVine was meeting with brands, New Balance’s official roster included just five other players: Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Dejounte Murray, Darius Bazley and Aaron Nesmith.
LaVine said that he spent a considerable amount of time speaking with both Murrays about their experience with the brand. He and San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray both hail from the Seattle area, and Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray similarly left Adidas to sign with New Balance a season ago.
“I actually took a pair of Dejounte’s shoes leading up to All-Star Weekend in San Antonio, just to try them out behind closed doors,” LaVine said.
LaVine also had another close contact with recent ties to New Balance to lean on: his agent, Rich Paul.
Just as LaVine was in the thick of his own brand negotiations, Paul, the Klutch Sports Group founder and CEO, released his own sneaker and apparel collection with New Balance in December 2021, highlighted by a navy and sky blue accented pair of the 550 lifestyle sneaker, with his name on the tongue tag. It was a rarity for a sports agent.
“It was good, because [New Balance is] really invested with Klutch,” said LaVine. “For them to already have a partnership with Rich, he got to have that full experience and tell me what it was like and have me make my decision from there. I don’t think he would steer me in the wrong direction. Obviously, if he’s partnering with somebody and it aligns with him, it’s going to align with his clients as well. He was able to see a little bit of an inside view and help me along with the process as well.”
Since its relaunch, New Balance has only created a signature shoe for Leonard, the two-time Finals MVP who is now on his second signature shoe. In leaving a crowded roster at Adidas to land with the smaller list of New Balance endorsers, the Bulls wing is hoping to have to his own namesake sneaker someday.
During the negotiations, according to sources, LaVine did pass on that immediate opportunity, as Chinese brand Anta Sports offered a “ZL1” signature shoe along with an aggressive multimillion-dollar endorsement contract. However, LaVine and his representation were focused on brands with a domestic presence, which would mean his shoes would be widely available in the U.S. and abroad.
“It was really cool to be in that space to have those conversations,” said LaVine. “I’m not going to give out too many details right now, but I will be having some custom [player exclusives] on the way and we’ll start talking hopefully about that signature line down the line, very soon. I’m partnering with a brand that’s investing in me and I’m investing in them, so I’m extremely happy.”
To close the regular season out, LaVine is expected to headline the brand’s Two Wxy sneaker in both mid- and low-top cuts, in nearly any color combination that shows up. With the NBA in its fourth season without any footwear color restrictions, he’s looking forward to lacing up hometown Seattle color tributes, pairs with variations of his UCLA collegiate colors, and everything in between.
“We’re in an age now where if you’re wearing red and you’re a blue team, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It’s individualized and it lets you stick out and be who you are. All of these different colors and flavors, I think it helps everybody.”
While LaVine will enter unrestricted free agency this summer, he’s expected to land a long-term extension with the Bulls in July and continue wearing the franchise’s team colors of red, black and white. At the start of LaVine’s shoe deal process, some brands did express uncertainty given Chicago’s recent team struggles.
After having never made the NBA playoffs in his career, LaVine’s retooled Bulls used a hot start to the season and are currently fifth in the Eastern Conference and a likely playoff team. He has averaged nearly 25 points.
“Everybody has their own opinions. I think that’s what sports is,” he said of the early-season doubters. “There’s a lot of narratives and people making their opinions and comments. I think it’s for us to go out there and do our jobs as professionals, and also go out there and shut people up sometimes. I think that’s the fun in it. Nobody really looked at us the right way.”
With his newfound team success, his consecutive All-Star appearances and a budding profile of marketing deals added to his portfolio, LaVine is looking to ramp up his visibility in campaigns such as his recent Mountain Dew and CarMax spots, and soon, brand campaigns with New Balance.
“Obviously, being in a couple commercials and getting some acting cues off, I’m playing myself in a lot of these roles, so it’s hard to mess that up,” he joked. “Hopefully I can expand on that in the future.”