Marketing in the NBA: From Mid-Major to Major

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Take a look at the path of the most marketable superstars in the NBA at the moment:

Lebron James: McDonald’s All American; drafted out of high school; signed a $90 million shoe deal with Nike before playing one minute in the NBA.

Kobe Bryant: McDonald’s All-American; drafted out of high school; demanded a trade to the Lakers; won the 1997 NBA Dunk Contest; became the youngest starter in NBA history.

Kevin Durant: McDonald’s All-American; averaged 25.8 pts and 11.1 rebounds during freshman year at Texas; named Naismith College Player of the Year.

Derrick Rose: McDonald’s All-American; averaged 14.9 pts and 4.7 assists at Memphis; lead Memphis to the Final Four.

Carmelo Anthony: McDonald’s All-American; averaged 22.2 pts and 10 rebounds during freshman year at Syracuse; lead Syracuse to National Title.

Then, look at Damian Lillard’s background: 2 star recruit; not heavily recruited; played three years at Weber State

And yet, there was Lillard participating in five events last All-Star weekend, as much a marketing event as it was a show of his talent. Lillard isn’t a superstar yet – he’s on the cusp, that same nebulous space occupied by James Harden, Steph Curry, Paul George and Kyrie Irving – where each player needs to take one more leap (preferably in the post-season/NBA finals). But Lillard is closer than the previously named players – outside of Steph Curry – as he’s in the right (Adidas) system. What other player in recent memory got a specific shoe for winning Rookie of the Year?


The Rookie of the Year Machine

But Lillard’s marketing machine seemed different from the very beginning, starting with License to Lillard, a 6 part YouTube series chronicling his entire rookie season, from pre-draft workouts to his first game in hometown Oakland. He was also part of a rookie class that signed with Adidas basketball.

The Adidas factor is arguably the biggest reason for his marketing ascent (outside of his play – of course, he can play). In light of knee injuries robbing Derrick Rose of the last two seasons, he’s become the face of the Adidas line.

And let’s get down to the stats: Lillard averaged 19 pts and 6.5 assists his rookie year, and is currently averaging 20.7 pts and 5.7 assists midway through his second season. And while those numbers are impressive, there’s the it factor separating him from the aforementioned James Harden’s, Paul George’s, John Wall’s, and Steph Curry’s. It might be his Oakland edge; it could be the clutch shot making; it could be a Portland fanbase looking to fill Brandon Roy’s figurative shoes.

As with most successful marketing campaigns, it’s part luck, part talent – and Lillard’s had the luck of timing on his side thus far. And with the further combination of playoff success, the Adidas machine, and a clever content marketing – Lillard could set the blueprint, and standard, for marketing mid-major school athletes. The road to superstar once went through the golden brick road of major conferences. But between Twitter and YouTube (as well as having athleticism, a 40% 3 point shot, etc), it’s never been a better time to be overlooked.


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