“How can we make you better?”
Each year, as Nike begins designing LeBron James’s next signature shoe, this is what the team says it always asks the King. But when I repeat this to James, he laughs in a that’s-what-they-told-you? way–and then rolls with it. “It’s really conversation after conversation, and them taking the words out of my mouth to be able to get the inspiration to create great products,” he says. “They make me better by just pushing the envelope.”
It’s a fair summary of Nike’s annual challenge–to unveil a new shoe that promises more agility, more durability, and, somehow, more LeBron. The company does its job well: This year, James’s shoe will bring in $300 million in U.S. revenue, according to SportsOneSource. So as Nike releases the newest model, the LeBron 12, its team dishes on how it designs in collaboration–and keeps fresh a very important, very visible 12-year relationship.
Nike works on a roughly two-year lead time; it started James’s newest shoes in 2012. But rather than think project to project, its teams experiment continuously. “We wouldn’t do big and revolutionary things if we only had six months to make something happen,” says Taryn Hensley, director of Nike’s cushioning innovation team. “We spend an immense amount of time on blue-sky exploration. We don’t know when it will commercialize. We don’t know if it can commercialize.”
Since James has specific preferences for cushioning, the team reworked the shoe’s air-bag system entirely for the LeBron 12. Innovation like that might find its way into products endorsed by other athletes, which would be financially convenient. But that’s a bonus at Nike, not a mandate. “If we’re doing an innovation specific for LeBron, the performance of that product is of utmost importance,” says Hensley. “We won’t sacrifice that performance for a smaller business cost.”
James’s shoe has evolved. Once built for jumping and dunking, it’s now created to give him stability and explosiveness. But Nike can’t have everything about the shoe to be fluid. The first logo it designed contained James’s jersey number–but then he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010 and switched numbers. Nike’s team scrambled to create a new logo (a crown with the letters LJ). “The lesson was to create something iconic, which would never have to be changed,” says Darrin Crescenzi, then a senior designer on the project. New player logos no longer have numbers or references to cities.
Nike designs shoes to hold up to almost every cut and leap a player can make–or, as Matt Nurse, senior director of the company’s sports research lab, describes it, “99% of all use-case scenarios.” During a game last season, James hit that missing 1%: He slipped and crashed hard. “We watched it from 16 different angles and in slo-mo,” says Nurse. Nike called James’s training staff to learn more. Then it decided to . . . do nothing. James fell because he hit the floor at an extreme angle. “We could fix it,” Nurse says, “but it would result in a functionally unattractive shoe.” Then nobody would buy it.
Nike has athletes test products in controlled lab settings, to track performance. But the team can’t rely on numbers alone. “There can be a big difference between what the data tells you and what that athlete is perceiving and feeling,” says Hensley. The trick, then, is to find ways to talk about performance without expecting analytic results. “It’s rare that an athlete will come and provide you with a solution,” says Nurse. “They come and present you with a problem. LeBron doesn’t ask for individual air bags in the shoe; he asks for a certain feeling and stability. It’s our job then to interpret and provide options back to him.”
Nike and its star player dominate the global shoe business. Matt Powell, an analyst with the research firm Sportsonesource, looks behind the image.
It doesn’t matter if he wears them: Last season was a PR nightmare for Nike: James rarely wore his then-new LeBron 11s in games because of what he described as a “fit issue.” But sales still grew 25%. Powell’s take: “Most people who buy LeBron shoes are not playing basketball in them. They’re fashion shoes; they’re collectibles.”
He’s not a sure bet everywhere: L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant used to be Nike’s face, but now he’s older and selling poorly: His shoes brought in just $40 million last year, 13% of James’s sales. But in China, Bryant is more popular than James. “You need to have elite athletes wearing your products, and you never know who’s going to be the most popular,” Powell says.
He isn’t Nike’s most valuable player: James’s Nike contract is rumored to be $19 million a year, but in August, the younger NBA star Kevin Durant signed on for a rumored $30 million a year. “Does it create some ill will? It could,” says Powell. “I think Nike will go out of its way to make LeBron happy in other ways.” Still, no one escapes Father Time, not even a player called the King. Nike needs to secure its future.