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Friday, June 4, 2010
Nike has a lot at stake in free agency

By Henry Abbott

Even though David Stern says the meeting won't happen, there has been a lot of excitement about the idea of this summer's top NBA free agents discussing with each other where they might end up playing next season.

There are all kinds of people in that conversation. LeBron James has said he's the ringleader. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson ... it's a who's who of this year's free agent class. In terms of having a lot at stake, those players are at the top of the list with the owners, staffs and fans of the various teams.

But there is another interested party no one has mentioned: Nike, and its affiliated Jordan brand.

That is a giant corporation with a lot of branding tied up in basketball, and specifically the footwear of the best basketball players in the world, including James, Bosh, Wade and Johnson as well as Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and dozens more who could change teams this year. Where they all end up will not just determine the fortunes of various NBA teams, but also the abilities of those players to inspire fans to buy shoes.

Two people with insight into the inner workings of the basketball shoe industry point out that Nike has as many dollars at stake in 2010 NBA free agency as anybody, and it's not exactly in the way you might expect.

There has long been a suggestion that a player like James would be more valuable to Nike in a major market like New York. Insiders suggest that a more important outcome for Nike may be to see James -- in whom the swoosh has invested close to $100 million -- wind up on a team where he can win solidify his reputation with championships.

One of the experts suggested that in that analysis, the Cavaliers, Bulls and Heat -- teams with more developed rosters than the Knicks or Nets -- would be the favorites.

Shoe companies also have practical concerns when players with signature shoes change teams: While making a few pairs of sneakers in new team colors for a player to wear on the court only takes a few days, getting mass-produced shoes manufactured, shipped and in stores takes months. If a major free agent like James or Wade is going to change teams, an early summer decision would improve the shoe company's ability to have their sneakers on shelves for the season opener.

Nike has a lot at stake in this free agent conversation. But does that mean they're participating in it? A spokesperson for the company would neither confirm, deny, nor comment.