AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When the new NBA season tips off next week, a relative newcomer is going to be hitting the court - not a player, a shoe. That's right. The athletic brand Puma is stepping back into the basketball shoe business with an updated version of its 1973 classic Clyde. That was a shoe that was made famous by New York Knicks great Walt Clyde Frazier. And to hear all about this comeback, we are going to go to ESPN's Nick DePaula, who covers the athletic shoe industry. He joins us from Portland, Ore. Hey.
NICK DEPAULA: Hey. How's it going there?
CHANG: Good. So why does Puma want to get back into the basketball market now? I mean, it's been - what? - 20 years since their last basketball shoe attempt.
DEPAULA: Yeah, so they had a foray in 1998, and it was very short-lived. They had signed just one player in Vince Carter. And that deal got broken after two years, and so they've been out the game for about 20 years now. But when I think - when you look at basketball, basketball's always had these elements of culture, style and music that no other American sport really has. And so for Puma, that's a big part of the appeal. It's tapping in with the players of today that are young and trendsetting and exciting.
DEPAULA: And also, I think a big thing for them is as a brand, as they look onto China and how they can make their mark there, basketball's really a big gateway in terms of being the global brand as well.
CHANG: But how much pull do they have now to get a big name behind them - 'cause I'm thinking, like, Nike and Adidas - they were able to attract people like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Is Puma even in a position to be going after a name like that right now?
DEPAULA: So signing players is definitely one of the biggest hurdles for any newcomer.
DEPAULA: You know, I did a lot of research last year. Nike had about 68 percent of the league wearing their shoes last season, so...
CHANG: Wow, OK.
DEPAULA: To step in and combat that is pretty tough, but...
CHANG: It's bold, OK.
DEPAULA: But they do have a huge budget and allowance from a corporate standpoint, and they signed six of the top 15 draft picks this year along with an...
DEPAULA: ...All-star in DeMarcus Cousins. So, you know, in terms of offers, they've been extremely aggressive, and that's a big part of how they're looking to make their imprint back.
CHANG: How big of a gamble is this for a company like Puma? You said the market's already pretty saturated. Is this a long shot to get back into the basketball shoe business?
DEPAULA: It's incredibly aggressive. The big hurdle and I guess the biggest thing that the detractors have been not as high on is, you know, when you're signing a lot of rookies, which they have, it's really tough to say how these guys will pan out.
DEPAULA: There are so many cases of guys that were drafted high that, you know, were busts that didn't pan out. And so I think one thing they're really doing is relying on social media. If you've gotten a chance to check out pumahoops on Instagram, they are unlike any other brand, and it's kind of wild, Wild West, and they'll post whatever.
DEPAULA: And it's very un-corporate-like. But I think people have taken to that, and it's made it kind of fun.
CHANG: You say the wild, Wild West. Is it more important in some ways how these players act off the court on social media when it comes to promoting a shoe brand than what they do on the court?
DEPAULA: Yeah, that's a huge component of it. I think, you know, as you look at all the stats in terms of high school kids, they're watching less and less of a full two-hour game, and they're really kind of immersing more in what these guys are doing away from the game. And they're seeing snippets of highlights on Instagram and things like that. But I looked it up the other day, and out of the nine guys that Puma signed, they have 6 1/2 million combined followers on Instagram. So that's...
DEPAULA: That's a huge base...
DEPAULA: ...As the brand is starting out. You know, I think the brand itself is only at a couple hundred thousand followers. And so they're really leaning in on their players' accounts. And I think a big part of their strategy with their shoe is that they don't want shoes that look just like a standard basketball shoe. They're trying to create stuff that maybe has a little more lifestyle to it that guys can be showcasing in different ways on their own pages. And so that's going to be a huge push for sure.
CHANG: Nick DePaula covers the athletic shoe industry for ESPN. Thanks so much, Nick.
DEPAULA: All right, thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.