Fancy Shaq footwear for forty bucks

NEW YORK -- Very few places in the world possibly could have been busier than the corner of 34th Street and Broadway on this December day. New Yorkers scurried out of their offices on their lunchtime breaks for some early holiday shopping, and bundled-up tourists crowded the sidewalks, gazing at maps and the scenes from "Miracle on 34th Street" in Macy's windows.

A neighboring Foot Locker was jammed with people looking for a way to afford today's athletic shoes. One man was pleased with his purchase of the new Converse signature shoe of Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade. They retail for $90, but a discount offer knocked 30 percent off.

Across the street at Payless Shoe Stores and at Daffy's, the store that promises "Clothing Bargains For Millionaires," the offers mostly were the same old discounts that were advertised before Thanksgiving.

Amid all that hustle and bustle and all those sale prices, a new signature sneaker endorsed by Shaquille O'Neal that was launched Thursday didn't particularly stand out, even at $39.99 a pair. If ever there was an inopportune conjunction of time and place to release the shoe, this was it. A few boxes stacked with the red and black shoes did little to attract passersby, many of whom only had eyes for the blow-up Scooby Doo on the Macy's building.

Five years ago, Shaq, the one-time Reebok spokesperson, was motivated by his childhood experiences to create a signature shoe that the average American could afford. So Thursday, Exeter Brands -- a subsidiary of Nike, which licenses O'Neal's Dunkman line -- released the model of O'Neal's game shoe exclusively to Payless Shoe Stores.

"There's no other athlete with a signature shoe at a mass level," said Dan Pincus, sales and marketing manager for the brand. "Shaquille brings an instant credibility in a market that he's creating."

But the shoppers who came to Payless on this day seemed to be foreigners who forgot to pack something for the trip to New York, or women in the market for gloves and boots as the cold weather approached.

When Foot Locker debuts a LeBron James Nike model across the street, eager fans wait on line under a towering billboard with a picture of the Cleveland Cavaliers star. The doors open and cashiers ring up some five pairs every minute, despite the $120 price tag.

But Thursday, the day of its launch at this location, the availability of a real basketball shoe at one-third that price led to only one sale per hour.

One day and one store, however, is just that.

The real test of the popularity of Shaq's shoe will come when the holiday sales at Macy's and Foot Locker are long over in Manhattan, and when some 1,200 other stores across America are stocked. The company projects that this shoe -- combined with the other Shaq-branded shoes -- will sell at least one million pairs in 2006.

Whether that projection holds true might depend on whether the 14- to 24-year-old consumer who longs for the Air Zoom LeBron IIIs believes he will have enough street cred on his hometown court wearing his $39.99 Shaq-endorsed shoes.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.