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Why the Raptors, New Balance are all-in on ‘not flashy’ Kawhi Leonard

Originally posted to BNN Bloomberg on Feb. 15, 2019

The Toronto Raptors and New Balance Athletics Inc. are both betting large on Kawhi Leonard.

The 27-year-old Los Angeles native was acquired via trade by the Toronto Raptors last summer and comes with an extensive resume that includes leading the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA championship, winning the Finals’ Most Valuable Player award along the way, twice being named the league’s top defensive player, and now a multi-year shoe deal believed to be worth upwards of US$20 million.

There’s just one problem: Kawhi Leonard is boring.

So, why is he the one both New Balance and the Raptors are pinning their hopes on?

“I do think that both brands are … let’s say, understated, instead of saying boring, and not flashy,” said John Yorke, president of Toronto-based strategy and digital marketing agency Rain43, in a phone interview. “However, I do think the actual fit is genius for New Balance because Kawhi Leonard is a basketball player’s basketball player.”

Yorke adds that Leonard’s understated style is part of the appeal for the sports apparel company.

“It’s only going to be inside basketball players who will know about it,” Yorke said. “This is just about being the best basketball shoe that they can come out with. So, I think it gives them that authenticity.”

In a league that boasts flashy superstars like LeBron James, who is slated to anchor the next chapter in the Space Jam film franchise, or viral sensations like Steph Curry, who seems to be able to make a basket from virtually anywhere, Leonard appears to be a peculiar choice.

However, one sports marketing executive says New Balance choosing someone like Leonard is not unprecedented, especially in comparison to some of the other athletes anchoring ad campaigns in Canada.

“Sidney Crosby has the same ‘flare,’ if you will,” Brian Cooper, president and CEO of MKTG Canada and a former vice-president at Raptors owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview.

“He’s no P.K. Subban when it comes to talking to the media, when it comes to doing public things to build his own brand. Yet he’s got a significant following, and he’s got a significant corporate sponsorship base just on performance.”

Leonard’s representatives could not be reached for comment on his off-court image.

KAWHI STEPS OUT

Leonard’s deal with New Balance, which was announced in November, got its first big push from the shoemaker on Thursday, with the company unveiling six versions of the new OMN1S sneakers. Leonard will wear one variation of the new shoes during this weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities in Charlotte, N.C.

 

In New Balance’s ad, Leonard doesn’t say a single word. Instead, it features on-screen text, proclaiming: “Kawhi doesn’t need to get your attention. He already has it,” and that the “Game speaks for itself.”

Yorke loved it.

“As good of an ad as I could have hoped for,” he wrote in an email to BNN Bloomberg. “Exactly the strategy to expect … very inside basketball. Simple and a perfect note.”

The question on Raptors fans’ minds, though, might not be about Leonard’s future with New Balance, but his future in Toronto.

The reason the team’s decision to acquire Leonard made headlines was not simply because the team acquired a player that many analysts consider one of the 10 best in the league, but because doing so came with considerable risk.

The Raptors surrendered one of its most beloved players in franchise history – DeMar DeRozan – in a trade to acquire Leonard, who appeared in just nine games last season. Leonard is in the final year of his contract and could potentially leave the Raptors next summer with the team getting nothing in return.

That potentiality may even have been at play in the New Balance deal, Cooper said.

“I would probably suggest – and I don’t know – that the New Balance deal probably has a bonus in it that says if you move to any one of these four major U.S. markets, you’re going to get a kicker,” Cooper said.

BNN Bloomberg has reached out to New Balance for comment regarding the possibility of any such clause existing.

THE RAPTORS’ BIG BET

The Raptors pushed even more of their chips into the middle of the table last week, trading Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles – both of whom had served as local spokespeople for website-builder GoDaddy.com – as well as Delon Wright, in a package to acquire Memphis Grizzlies star Marc Gasol.

It was a bold on-court move, but one that offers the Raptors another unique marketing opportunity.

jeremy-lin-and-marc-gasol
Toronto Raptors guard Jeremy Lin, left, and centre Marc Gasol look on from the bench during first half NBA basketball action against the Washington Wizards in Toronto on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. 

There’s a common thread in the players that the Raptors are currently banking on, which speaks to the Toronto team’s appeal for an increasingly global audience. Gasol is a three-time all-star from Barcelona. Newly-signed point guard Jeremy Lin is popular among Asian fans of the NBA. Power forward Pascal Siakam – who stole the spotlight in the Raptors’ Wednesday night win against the Washington Wizards with a career-high 44 points – was born in Cameroon.

“If you add Lin from the Chinese market, Gasol from the Spanish and European market and Siakam – who’s probably more of a North American player now than an African player – you’re talking about a pretty dynamic global team,” Yorke said.

Leonard, too, could be positioning himself to win over global fans.

“[New Balance] can build a narrative around his performance,” Cooper said of Leonard’s marketability in foreign markets.

“He doesn’t speak the language, so your print ads or any of your commercial spots are just based on his performance and he doesn’t have to open his mouth. He doesn’t have to portray an emotional connection through his personality.”

However, the Raptors toughest competition for the fans’ hearts, minds, and wallets could come not only from within its own city, but its own company of MLSE.

“Their biggest challenge, financially, could be if the Leafs are in the playoffs at the same time,” Yorke said of the Raptors’ NHL siblings. “It’s going to be a city torn.”

“I know there are different demographics that go into the Raptors, but the money’s all the same money, and the heavy corporate sponsorship and dollars are all going into that.”

 

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