Professional basketball players sign shoe deals every year. Rappers and musicians have also been landing brand deals for decades.
But Flau’jae Johnson, a high school All-American who’s now a freshman guard at Louisiana State University, is blending the worlds of basketball, music and entertainment for a groundbreaking name, image and likeness (NIL) deal, signing a multiyear shoe contract with Puma.
Before recent rules changes, student-athletes couldn’t land endorsements until they went pro, which under WNBA rules, can’t happen until three years after they’ve finished high school. But after Johnson was approached by several brands, it was Puma’s interest in all of her talents that made for the right fit.
“They were very intrigued not only [about] basketball, but my music side too,” the 18-year-old said. “That was really important to me, because some people try to box you in. Puma was like, ‘Ain’t no box. Ain’t no cage.’ ”
Since relaunching its basketball footwear business in 2018, Puma has looked to make a splash with its player signings and a creative approach to what, at times, can be a formulaic marketing playbook across the industry.
Johnson wasn’t aware of the short-lived Vince Carter signature shoe run with Puma in the late 1990s, which preceded the brand’s nearly two-decade hiatus from the sport. But she’s been following the moves the brand has been making lately.
“[Growing up] as a baller, you didn’t really see Puma in basketball,” she said. “Now, they’re really rising up in the culture and you can really see it with LaMelo [Ball] to Mikey [Williams] to Breanna [Stewart] and Skylar [Diggins-Smith]. To be a part of that new wave is just dope to me, and I knew that our vision would align.”
Another element that stood out to Johnson was the brand’s equal push of its women’s basketball players. Puma brought on costume designer and stylist June Ambrose to “coach” and design its quarterly women’s basketball apparel collections.
Diggins-Smith recently launched her “Desert Sky” capsule collection of sneakers and clothes with Puma. Most notably, the brand unveiled the “Stewie 1” this summer, a signature shoe for Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart that is the first WNBA signature shoe in more than a decade.
“That was a big factor, because you’re investing in a space that’s growing, but it needed that push,” said Johnson, who wore the Stewie 1s in her brand announcement photos. “I feel like Puma was the first to be behind that push. Just like they were the first to [get] behind a NIL athlete [by signing Mikey Williams].”
Johnson advanced to the quarterfinals of America’s Got Talent in 2018 as a rapper. At the time, judges Simon Cowell and Howie Mandell called the then-14-year-old “a star.” Since then she’s enjoyed a dual ascension both on and off the court. She now boasts more than a million followers across her social media platforms and has released several viral songs and music videos, which led to her signing with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label.
On the court, the 5-foot-10 combo guard from Savannah, Georgia, elevated her game to becoming a four-star recruit. She finished her high school career as the all-time leading scorer, male or female, at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia. Johnson played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, the SLAM Summer Classic at Rucker Park, and was the MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic. Johnson was also the only female player invited to the Iverson Classic.
“I’ve been doing both since I was little,” she said. “I’ve been playing basketball since I was 4 years old. I was always hoopin’ with guys, and I was always rapping.”
When Johnson’s mother, Kia Brooks, couldn’t find a girls league for her to join when she was younger, she registered her for a boys league in Savannah (Johnson played in it through the fifth grade). Music also came naturally for Johnson, whose dad, Jason Johnson, had made a name for himself as Camoflauge throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s rap scene around Georgia.
In 2003, six months before she was born, and days before her father was set to sign a record deal with Universal, Camoflauge was killed. Before his death, he’d asked Brooks to use part of his rap moniker for his daughter’s name — leading to the distinctive “Flau’jae.”
When Johnson was in elementary school, her mom and family friends began to tell her more about her father’s music career.
“That’s one of the reasons why I started,” she said. “As I got older, I was like, ‘These two things are something that I love to do.’ ”
Some college coaches saw her dedication to music as a potential distraction. But as a sophomore in high school, Johnson and her mother decided she was going to pursue both music and hoops.
“My mom was like, ‘Flau’jae, you have a talent. I’m not finna let none of these go to waste. You’re gonna do both, and you’re gonna learn to balance,’ ” she recalled. “I took on that challenge, and I really learned how to be balanced and disciplined.”
LSU’s new Hall of Fame head coach Kim Mulkey saw Johnson’s dual talents as a positive. She expects the incoming freshman to make an immediate impact for the Tigers on the court.
“Flau’jae is a guard who can play any perimeter position at a high level,” Mulkey told 24/7 Sports after Johnson committed to LSU. “She handles the ball exceptionally well and she couples that with great court vision as well as having the ability to shoot the three. She has a tremendous work ethic and will be a great guard for us.”
Mulkey and industry analysts also believe Johnson has star potential off the court through her NIL opportunities.
She huddled with her “momager” mother to start to map out how she could approach potential brand deals and the season ahead.
“I really sat back, and went, ‘Wow, I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ ” she said. “The people before me didn’t really have the opportunity to do this, so I’m like, ‘I gotta take it to the next level.’ ”
Her mom echoed that same level of excitement.
“This is a groundbreaking moment for not only Flau’jae, but for her peers and viewers to see the fruits of her labor and how her stern focus has given her much to be proud about in both basketball and music,” Brooks said. “Flau’jae has always been a very focused young lady since a toddler, so to see her continue to accomplish these milestones is a testament of how much of a strong woman she is becoming.”
In the past, student-athletes couldn’t monetize their YouTube channels, even if their content was unrelated to their sport. But that’s changed under the new NIL rules. With more than 127,000 subscribers, Johnson can begin incorporating brands like Puma into her music videos and other content on YouTube.
While she signed a Puma deal, LSU is a Nike-sponsored school, meaning Johnson will have to wear Nike sneakers during games. Off the court, she’ll showcase Puma across her social media, in brand campaigns and during her concerts.
“I made a commitment to LSU and I’m a team player. That’s that,” she said of the brand conflict. “I’m just excited to have my ideas implemented in what I want to do with Puma, on and off the court. I’m a hooper, I’m a rapper, I’m an entertainer.”
Besides the Puma shoe deal, Johnson was one of 30 people from nine sports invited to participate in Meta’s NIL Empower program. The parent company of Facebook and Instagram is bringing in players like Johnson to provide resources and help them with content creation, workshops on navigating the demands of social media, and pairs players with deals with brand partners.
“My mom used to always tell me about [being] a broke college student. My brother, he was like, ‘I’m a broke college student,’ ” she said. “Well, it ain’t gonna be me! NIL is exciting, and it’s just another way for me to tell my story with my music and I’m able to capitalize and get paid.”
Johnson embraces showing off her “big personality,” which she pours into everything she does. She’s featured in the new E! television show Raising A F***ing Star, which debuted this week, and she also has a camera crew following her for a future project. Johnson sat in on multiple meetings with Puma executives to map out upcoming campaigns and strategies, with a focus on the shifting era of marketing that long saw brands providing plug-and-play content to players and influencers who are now producing their own Instagram Reels, TikTok content, and videos for their social media pages.
“And you can see the difference,” she said. “Puma, they’ll be like, ‘We got ideas, but what do you want to do?’ We just go on and brainstorm and come up with what we want to do.”
Just as she’s always done, Johnson will continue focusing on balancing both her creative pursuits and her basketball aspirations.
“I feel like I’m starting my legacy right now,” she said. “To be starting out with Puma is amazing. I see myself being one of the biggest basketball players of all time and one of the greatest rappers of all time. That’s my goal, and nothing less than that. That’s what I want and that’s my legacy.”