The 2016-17 season was a milestone one for Giannis Antetokounmpo. In February he played in his first All-Star Game, in May he was named to the All-NBA second-team, and in June he earned the league's Most Improved Player trophy. While racking up honor after honor, the Milwaukee Bucks forward was being paid by Nike to wear the company's sneakers. His take on that deal? A mere $25,000.
Antetokounmpo's days as a bargain are numbered, and not just because his 4-year, $100 million extension with the Bucks kicks in this fall. Once September comes to a close, his current footwear and apparel endorsement deal with Nike is set to expire, making him the clear-cut headliner of the available NBA players looking for a new shoe deal heading into next season.
Late last summer, New York Knicks versatile big Kristaps Porzingis landed a seven-year pact with Adidas that pays him just under $5 million annually. Incentives for surpassing scoring thresholds, making the playoffs or starting in the All-Star Game could put the value as high as $7 million per season.
That price range has become the starting point for expectations on the offers that Antetokounmpo and his camp are planning to hear later this month.
"The bar was set with Porzingis, in terms of financials," says one brand source. Some industry sources feel the Greek Freak could be looking at as much as $7-10 million annually on a new five-year endorsement deal.
Antetokounmpo is keenly aware of where he ranks among his peers. "I might be the MVP this year," he told NBA.com earlier this month. He's long removed from being a shy teenager new to America, famously and sheepishly blown away by his first smoothie.
While he may have taken less than the maximum available on his team deal to allow the Bucks some added flexibility to retool the roster in future summers, he's confidently looking ahead to hearing the various brand pitches, and hearing how he'll be best utilized in a company's plans going forward. Historically, the Milwaukee market has been challenging for footwear brands. According to several brand sources at multiple companies, thanks in part to the modern social media era and Antetokounmpo's global appeal as a one-of-a-kind athlete, the market isn't a worry as brands begin to prepare their offers.
"I've always said that I think he's one of those guys that has the potential to transcend his market," his agent Alex Saratsis tells ESPN. "I think he's showing that he can do that. I think he's one of the few players that could have a truly global appeal."
For Saratsis and the Octagon sports agency that represents him, Antetokounmpo's upcoming shoe deal is not only expected to place him among the top 10 NBA players in the league from an earnings standpoint, but will also have the potential to frame and amplify his overall marketing and personal brand going forward. So far, both Adidas and Under Armour have expressed strong interest, while Nike ultimately holds a "match clause" on any offer sheet Antetokounmpo signs.
"Giannis is a sure thing and unique," says one industry source. "He does freakish s--- that gets folks talking."
The initial Nike deal
Antetokounmpo originally signed a four-year team contract with Spanish club CAI Zaragoza, just days after his 18th birthday in December 2012. The deal was set to begin during the fall of 2013 for the following basketball season. That spring, he signed his initial deal with Nike, also a four-year pact.
The original shoe deal paid him $25,000 per year, with a $5,000 signing bonus -- "more money than he had seen in his entire life" -- according to a source.
"Nobody knew who Giannis was," Saratsis says.
Had he gone on to play in Spain and continued his development overseas, it was deemed a fair deal at the time. However, he never reached the Spanish league. After flashing signs of his versatile and relentless game while playing 23 minutes per night in his final season in Greece, he entered the 2013 NBA draft.
His Zaragoza deal allowed for an NBA out, but his Nike contract transferred hemispheres, locking him in on the same company-friendly terms even after he was selected 15th overall by the Bucks. It didn't take long for Antetokounmpo to outpace the value of his shoe deal once he hit the NBA floor. His $50,000 bonus for starting in the All-Star Game in 2017 was twice his annual earnings.
With that initial Nike deal set to expire this fall, Antetokounmpo and Saratsis can begin negotiating with other interested brands this month. They're expected to hold pitch meetings in Milwaukee in the coming weeks, hearing each brand out on its footwear plans for future innovation, marketing plans built around the All-NBA forward and total financial offer.
What he's looking for
In the footwear world, a player's appeal to a new brand can often be measured by his relatively untapped marketing to date. Companies don't want to have to repackage and remarket someone who has a history of signature shoes with competing brands. They want to tell stories that consumers haven't yet heard. It's partly the reason why James Harden and Porzingis were so coveted when their Nike deals were set to expire. After wearing a signature shoe with both Reebok and Adidas, it's also why Washington Wizards star point guard John Wall has been struggling to land a lucrative new endorsement deal with a third brand, despite his rise as one of the game's greatest floor generals.
"Giannis has the cleanest slate," says a company source interested in signing him.
Whichever brand he eventually signs with, Antetokounmpo is undeniably looking for a signature shoe. The timeline of creating a namesake model is typically 12-18 months, so he understands the shoe would likely take a year to design and develop and would launch during the 2018-19 NBA season. But it will still be a massively important component of any brand's offer. Signature shoes also include a 5 percent royalty on all pairs sold in the United States, with an even higher royalty percentage earned from pairs sold in China.
Although Antetokounmpo has hardly been marketed by Nike to date and has yet to have even a custom Bucks colorway of a shoe available at retail, some brands do wonder about his affinity for supporting new models and switching in and out of flashy sneakers. He has been described by those closest to him as a "creature of habit." From a brand's perspective, Antetokounmpo will have to move on from his reluctance to change.
He has exclusively worn the Kobe X Low model for the past two seasons, constantly declining to switch into Nike's latest and greatest. The brand made him a custom pair of the new Kobe A.D. for the 2017 All-Star Game, yet he still opted to switch back into his beloved Kobe X just before tipoff. At one point, the brand even wanted him to debut the new React Hyperdunk 2017 during this year's playoffs -- but he stuck with the Kobes. He has rotated through four simple pairs, in black/white, white/black, green/white and white/green. Several star players wear a brand new pair for every game; his pairs show every last scuff and crease.
Antetokounmpo is expected to hear substantial offers and presentations from brands. Once September hits, he'll be free to sign a term sheet with either Adidas, Under Armour or another competing brand, officially starting the clock for Nike's right of first refusal deliberation window. It works much like the NBA's restricted-free-agency period, but brands have far longer than the 72-hour decision timeline that teams face. Nike will have 20 business days to exercise its match clause, effectively deciding whether to retain him at whatever price the market bears.
Who could land Giannis?
As Adidas is looking to refresh its roster, the company is also looking to balance out its point guard-heavy stable of current endorsers. Harden, Damian Lillard and Derrick Rose all have a signature shoe, but there's still room for a wingman to enter the fold and represent a different, more versatile, side of the game for the brand.
"There's an icon shoe foot to be filled, so to speak," Michael Ladinig, Adidas director of basketball sports marketing, told me a year ago. "An above-the-rim style of player, that style isn't necessarily represented enough in our current portfolio of players -- that explosive, dominant and highly athletic player."
At the time, the brand had hoped that Timberwolves rising phenom Andrew Wiggins could fill that role, but internally there has been strong hesitation about whether Wiggins could carry his own signature shoe. Antetokounmpo's game is already more established and more accomplished, leading the company to look at making a massive offer that could steal him away from Nike. Adidas is enjoying momentum in other categories as a brand and hasn't been shy in offering monster deals in the past to its top priorities, such as the 13-year deal to Harden and the seven-year contract to Porzingis.
For Under Armour, there's an inherent synergy between the brand and Antetokounmpo's camp already in place. Antetokounmpo's agency, Octagon, also represents brand headliner Stephen Curry and his brother, Seth Curry, making for a strong familiarity and working partnership that has been established for several seasons now. Additionally, Under Armour's NBA sports marketing director Kris Stone grew up as childhood best friends with Bucks head coach Jason Kidd. The two were teammates at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School just outside of Oakland, California, more than 25 years ago, and have stayed close ever since. Not only is the Octagon relationship a strong connection, but it's also believed that Antetokounmpo's affinity for sleek low-top sneakers would complement the brand's current Curry signature series, as the Warriors' MVP typically wears a higher-cut shoe.
During this past season, Nike tried to engage Octagon in early extension talks on a new deal, according to sources, ideally looking to sign him to a long-term agreement and bypass the summer negotiating window with other brands. Antetokounmpo felt the talks could become a distraction and "wasn't in the place to think about that," according to a source. He didn't want any endorsement discussions to distract from his focus on the current season and the Bucks' spring push to make the postseason.
"He has grown into a man. He's taken on the responsibility. He's not wide-eyed anymore," Saratsis says. "He's been in the league for four years, which is still a young amount of time, but the way he approaches his routine and what's important to him, he's grown tremendously. It's amazing. Personally, his growth has been impressive."
Nick DePaula is the creative director for Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector Magazine.