Did adidas Really Jump Over the Jumpman?
Did adidas Really Jump Over the Jumpman?
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date October 27, 2017
Michael Jordan is responsible for some of the most recognizable and popular sneakers of all time. His resume is undeniable and his spot is forever solidified. So when news broke back in September that adidas had overtaken Jordan Brand as the number two sneaker seller in the United States behind Nike, it came as a shock to many. “This is an achievement I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” tweeted Matt Powell, sports industry analyst with NPD Group. To many, adidas had achieved the unthinkable.
Fans and experts alike immediately praised adidas and its rapid growth in recent years, which was well deserved. With the introduction and evolution of Boost technology—specifically on the popular NMD and Ultra Boost models—as well as the addition of Kanye West as the brand’s new lightning rod, adidas has its finger firmly on the pulse of what generates excitement in 2017. Once you factor in the continued success of the iconic Originals models—2016’s highest-selling shoe, the Superstar, plus the Stan Smiths and Gazelles (to name a few)—the company has capitalized better than anyone on this current athleisure wave, producing sleek and stylish athletic wear. In the last two reported quarters, adidas’s sales growth went up 41 percent and 45 percent.
However, upon deeper examination, the hurdles for Jordan Brand to regain market strength run deeper than just a recent adidas movement. The three stripes didn’t simply come and snatch the market out of MJ’s oversized jean pockets. Jordan Brand has a number of factors working against it as it attempts to battle the surging adidas for sales while simultaneously fending off market over-saturation and growing consumer apathy. Most importantly, the company is starting to find out the most difficult and unavoidable factor working against it: Jordans are a finite resource.
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Jordan Brand churns out a new signature shoe every year, in addition to Jordan lifestyle sneakers and apparel, but the largest segment of its business remains retros. Despite a stacked roster of NBA stars endorsing new, state-of-the-art performance basketball sneakers, the only models that consistently move the needle for Jordan Brand are retro releases, specifically original colorways worn by Jordan himself during his storied career with the Chicago Bulls. That means Jordans I through XIV, the latter being the last model Jordan wore when he retired in 1998 after hitting his final jumper in Utah and securing his sixth title—the predominantly black colorway aptly nicknamed, “Last Shot”—are relied upon to carry the brand every single year. Tinker Hatfield, the legendary Nike designer who was the creative mastermind behind the Jordan III through XV and some of the brand’s later models, was also an integral part of creating the most iconic Jordan designs during that span. Two decades have come and gone since that last shot in Utah. A large portion of the current sneaker-buying community isn't even old enough to have seen MJ don one of those OG models.
With the exception of the Countdown packs Jordan Brand released in 2008, where they would pair two Jordan models together adding up to the number 23, very few Jordans from his post-Bulls career have ever been re-released. The XV, XVI, XVII, XX and XXIII are the only non-Bulls-era sneakers to ever hit the retro market outside of the Countdown packs, none of which are particularly sought after in the sneaker community. It took a limited release collaboration with popular streetwear brand Public School to sell out the XV this year, albeit in limited quantities.
So this leaves a company with a limited number of options to begin with even fewer sure things. The Jordan I, III, IV, XI and XII are some of the more sought after models, but there have been cases recently of these popular sneakers sitting on shelves, and at times even hitting Nike Outlets and sales racks.
The “True Blue” III, one of the most hyped colorways from one of the most popular Jordan models ever, was released as part of Jordan Brand’s always star-studded Holiday release calendar in 2016. Every year, JB loads up in the 4th quarter with multiple can’t-miss releases, first in November, then the big drop a few days before Christmas, which has featured a Jordan XI every year since 2008. The “True Blue” III released on November 25th (Black Friday) of last year and not only didn’t sell out on release day, but sat on shelves for months. Sitting right next to it collecting dust was the “Kobe” Jordan IX, which released a few weeks prior.
If you would’ve told the NikeTalk forums of 2006-2010 that you could have just walked into a random FootLocker or Kicks USA after release date and paid retail (or less) for True Blues and a Kobe PE, you would've been laughed out of the forum. Same goes for the previous year’s Black Friday release, the “Aqua” Jordan VIII. Ten years ago, this was one of the most hyped non-OG retro out, but within months of its November 2015 release, it hit Nike Outlets at a discounted price. The “True Blues” didn’t even make Stadium Goods’ list of its 50 best-selling sneakers in 2016.
So, the real question here, is why are these models that are expected to sell, not?
According to StockX CEO Josh Luber’s interview with Business Insider, there are two main reasons: the shift away from basketball style and an oversaturated market of Jordan Brand retros.
Jordan Brand may be performance basketball footwear, but the legacy of the sneakers when they aren’t on Michael Jordan’s feet is that for three decades, they've symbolized status and style. The stylish sneakers, thanks to this recent shift in athletic wear, now belong to adidas, particularly its Yeezy Boost, Ultra Boost and NMD models, which have been dominating over the past two years. Four of the five best-selling sneakers at Stadium Goods in 2016 were adidas NMDs, Ultra Boosts and Yeezys. “Space Jam” Jordan XIs came in at number four.
The top-selling shoe of 2016 was the adidas Superstar, which made its debut way back in 1969 and is simplistic and classic. Plus, at its $80 price point, is far more affordable than a typical Jordan retro. Fifteen million pairs of the Superstar were sold in 2016. The majority of the list is rounded out by affordable, readily available sneakers like the Converse Chuck Taylor, Nike Roshe Run and Nike Free. All of these shoes have a simple aesthetic, an affordable price point, are available everywhere and come in a multitude of colorways. They will always sell.
Jordan did have two entries on the list (one more than adidas): the “Flu Game” Jordan XII (No. 2) and the “Space Jam” Jordan XI (No. 8). Two iconic Jordan moments in some of his most popular models were needed for any Jordan Brand shoes to crack the list at all. Jordan Brand doesn’t have an Air Force 1 or Superstar to rely on year in and year out for sales. They rely on the anticipation generated by re-releasing sneakers the public hasn’t seen in a while, but even the wait isn’t what it used to be.
Jordan IIIs have re-released six times from 2007 to 2016, Jordan IVs were brought back eight times from 2008 to 2017, and the Jordan I, a reliable seller and iconic model in its own right, has seen a retro release every year from 2007 to 2017. The aforementioned “True Blue” III sat on shelves partially because Jordan Brand already released that same model in 2009 and 2011. For a lot of the Jordan fans who couldn’t afford or couldn't get their hands on these popular models when they came out the first time, they've had multiple opportunities to buy them since and don’t need to keep buying them every time out, especially when no noticeable improvements are being made.
The over-saturation of Jordan retros and the rise of adidas has hurt Jordan on the resale market as well. Jordan Brand made up 96% of the resale market in January 2015 while adidas made up about 1%. Today, adidas makes up 45%, all within the span of two years, per Luber. And more than any other sneaker brand, Jordan takes the biggest hit from that recent surge.
According to a StockX report of the Jordan resale market published in June 2016, arguably the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of the resale market available, Jordan resale profit margin steadily declined from 2012 to 2015, dropping roughly 20 percent over that span. A perfect example of this is the aforementioned “Aqua” Jordan VIII from 2015’s Black Friday release. According to Luber, the 2007 version was selling for around $450 on the resale market, but the 2015 version resulted in a negative resale margin thanks to minor design tweaks and too many available pairs. In 2015, 12 of the 38 general release Jordans released were deemed “worthless” by StockX research, as they failed to generate more than an 18% resale profit margin, the average break-even point when factoring in resell costs. (I encourage you to read StockX’s entire Jordan resale breakdown for even more data and analysis.)
Analyzing the resale market is hardly an exact science. Numbers are often heavily skewed due to availability and as we’ve seen from the best-seller lists, hype for one shoe doesn't dictate a company’s overall sales. But what these numbers do clearly indicate is a marked decrease in demand across the board for a variety of Jordan models. Not all, of course. OG Jordan XIs that drop during the holidays, despite being a general release which are available in large quantities, still fetch high resale prices because people want the shoe. There just aren’t many models or colorways that are that dependable.
How can Jordan counteract the disappointments of sneakers they might expect more from like the “True Blue” III or “Aqua” VIII? In recent years they’ve beefed up their retro business by linking with popular tastemakers like Drake and Don C, as well as teaming with brands like Public School or the popular artist KAWS, for limited releases. These releases, like the Don C II and OVO X and KAWS IV, drive up hype and instantly sell out in ways general release Jordans used to. It keeps the brand relevant to a younger generation of consumers who might be buying the shoe for its brand affiliation rather than the Jordan mystique, but from a retail sales standpoint, the shoes are so limited in number that even the inflated price points don’t budge Jordan Brand’s retail sales. These versions can dominate the resale market, often selling for exorbitant amounts of money due to their limited nature, but other than fulfilling the needs of the most dedicated sneakerheads and hypebeasts armed with disposable income, it’s not really doing much for Jordan Brand’s retail business other than keeping the name fresh.
Arguably the most popular Jordan in terms of hype this year was Virgil Abloh’s deconstructed take on the Jordan I in a collaboration between his Off-White label and Jordan Brand. The shoe received all types of coverage in the fashion world, but was released in such a limited quantity (with more set to release in November) that the brand isn’t banking on it to compete with adidas in terms of sales. More likely, the brand will look to collaborations like this to act as its version of Kanye West’s Yeezy Boosts, the shoes which drive hype for adidas and instantly sell out, but don’t carry the company in terms of sales. According to StockX data, the resale value of the Off-White Jordan I is significantly higher than any of the other Off-White and Nike collaborations. Taken a step further, when comparing the Off-White models to average price premiums of three different Yeezys and three different general release Jordan Is, the Off-White price premiums are noticeably higher than the Yeezys and nearly double that of the Jordan Is, although the hyper-limited nature of the Off-White collaboration to this point probably has a lot to do with that. But it proves that when presented properly, Jordans can still dominate the way they’re accustomed to.
A true test for Jordan will come this holiday season when it releases two different Jordan XI models, none of which are original colorways. A “Navy” pair will release in November, with a “Gym Red” version to follow just in time for Christmas. Can the brand take the closest thing they have to a sure thing and sell out versions the market isn’t accustomed to? Does the public want the shoe or does the public want the Jordan moment that accompanied it?
That’s another significant obstacle for the company which rarely gets discussed. Unlike any other brand featured on these best-selling sneaker lists, Jordan Brand was built solely off the exploits of one athlete. The shoes were intertwined with the moments he created, both on the court throughout his storied career, and off the court in the masterful marketing which accompanied nearly every release. The moments—the shrug, the flu game, the last shot—are what continues to breathe life into the shoes all these years later.
According to Forbes, Jordan is still the owner of the NBA’s largest shoe deal, having earned $110 million as of June 2017. Despite soft sales of his most recent release, Jordan Brand’s $2.8 billion revenue in 2016 was double Nike Basketball’s segment ($1.4 billion) thanks to its slew of retro releases. The shadow of MJ continues to loom so large over the company, which is why he’s never been able to have a true heir apparent despite having some of the world’s best basketball players on the JB roster.
In the last decade, the brand has been home to some of the best names in the game, like Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and the reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook. Anthony and Paul had signature Jordans for many years, but their sneakers served as nothing more than a piece of the Jordan Brand portfolio. None of their signature models are sought after on the resale market in 2017. But the one athlete that could change all that for the brand going forward is Westbrook.
Westbrook is unique in that he’s dominant on the court and he’s fashionable off of it. In a time when tastemakers outside of sports are affecting what drives the sales of sneakers and the hype surrounding them, Westbrook could marry those two worlds better than anyone. He's already released two off-court sneakers for the brand and after securing a 10-year extension with the company back in September, signature on-court shoes are next. With one MVP on his resume, a competitive streak and highlight reel dunks his boss can identify with, the brand’s future is in capable hands.
While Jordan Brand is busy sorting all this out, adidas has continued to push all the right buttons in the past 24 months. According to the NPD Group, from May 2016 to May 2017, adidas nearly doubled its market share in the U.S. athletic footwear industry from 6.3% to 11.3%. Jordan Brand felt that the most, seeing its share dip from 14.8% to 11.8% in the same span. adidas shares are up 31% over the past year and show no signs of slowing down. The company didn’t even attempt to renew its jersey and apparel deal with the NBA in 2015, knowing that the sneaker and fashion industry was well in the midst of this revolution and trending away from performance basketball sneakers. The performance basketball category is down 23% overall from the previous year, which is Jordan Brand’s entire retro collection and the core of its business.
Just purely in economical terms, since the Jordan retro market has reached the point of saturation, the only way to achieve further growth is through new product improvements, taking existing market share from competitors or through a rise in overall consumer demand. adidas has hit that trifecta in the past two years and it’s up to Jordan Brand to find ways to maneuver the changing marketplace. Revenue for Jordan Brand is still sky high. $2.8 billion in revenue is a gaudy number, but when more retros are hitting the market in larger quantities with higher price points and the Jordan cachet attached, it’s hardly a surprise. adidas soared past Jordan Brand and is gaining on Nike because it understands the consumers better than both by creating innovative product and presenting it in a way which generates excitement for its releases.
So what is the best way for Jordan Brand to combat adidas’s increasing market strength and the industry’s shifting tastes going forward? Do they go all in on guaranteed sellers every year? Do they continue to experiment with different colorways or increase the availability of limited collaborations? If the company limits the amount of retros it releases and attempts to restore the mystique to the company, how will that loss of sales in Jordan Brand’s largest division affect Nike as a whole going forward?
adidas has simply been better at putting out products that are more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, while most importantly, becoming the epitome of cool as of late. They have their classics, they have their innovative products and they have their hyped products that keep the people camping out. In 2017, sneakers designed by Kanye West and Pharrell sell out in seconds while previously sought after Jordans hit the outlets. Let that sink in.