Friday, February 18, 2005

All-Stars and new footwear a perfect fit

By Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY

The players in the All-Star Game won't wear makeup. They won't face wind machines meant to give them extra glamour. But at least when it comes to selling shoes, the players will be runway models — for shoes about to become available to the masses.

When it comes to selling sneakers, the NBA All-Star Game isn't just an exhibition.

Says Brian Povenelli, a Reebok marketing vice president, "It's a battleground for the industry."

That's partly because the event is a congregation of the kind of players who are used prominently in sneaker marketing or even have their own signature shoes. And marketers don't face restrictions on color schemes in shoes worn in the All-Star Game — unlike the usual NBA rule that players wear shoes that are mainly black or white.

Because consumers have come to expect the All-Star Game to give them their first glimpses of new shoes, it's become a launch pad for new looks. "It's an event where a lot of eyes are on the product," Nike spokesman Rodney Knox says.

Nike's fashion statements in the All-Star Game will include LeBron James, who usually wears black shoes, modeling gray and blue versions of his signature Zoom LeBron II shoes, which hit retail stores last weekend.

Kobe Bryant will wear gray, red and blue Nike 2K5 sneakers, a shoe that also will come out in three more color schemes in March.

Nike also will shod Vince Carter in red, white and blue versions of his signature VC IV shoe. Jermaine O'Neal's All-Star version of the Shox Bomber will have a similar color scheme. Versions of the Shox Bomber without the All-Star color scheme go on sale in March; Carter's All-Star kicks are available this weekend.

And what would a sneaker story be without a pair of Air Jordans? Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen will unveil a special pair of AJXX's, marking the 20th anniversary since the shoe first hit the market.

"It's always been more than just a shoe to me," Jordan says. "I'm honored that, even after 20 years, my loyal fans and friends have continued to support me and the legacy of Air Jordan."

The special edition Allen will wear won't be available in stores; however, a version of the shoe will be in stores All-Star weekend. The motorcycle-inspired design of the AJXX (Jordan owns a motorcycle team, Team23 Racing) includes a laser-etched strap that features more than 200 icons that were done to create a tapestry of stories connected to Jordan's career.

Players modeling new shoes for Adidas include Tracy McGrady, wearing his laceless signature shoe, and Antawn Jamison, in an AQ sneaker that will launch in March. The company is counting on long consumer memories: Tim Duncan will be wearing a D-Cool shoe that won't be available until July.

But nobody is counting on longer memories than Reebok. Using the feet of Allen Iverson and Yao Ming, it will resurrect its Pump sneaker, which sold from 1989 to 1992 and was Reebok's best-selling sneaker ever — more than 20 million pairs.

"It's the first time I've ever worn a pump shoe," Iverson says of the trip down memory lane, "but I loved it. I loved it."

It's coming back, suggests Povenelli, because "right now there's a huge void in the (sneaker) marketplace for technology."

But the sneaker marketplace will never suffer from a lack of hype and hustle.

Consumers, as Adidas spokesman Travis Gonzolez says, have been trained to look at the All-Star Game for shopping tips. "Shoe companies do more with the All-Star Game than they did in the past," he says. "The weekend just seems to be a time when kids get hyped about the game and want to buy shoes."

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