Think about a world in which LeBron James, who recently signed a lifetime deal with Nike rumored to be worth around a billion dollars, had signed with adidas instead. Would Nike be the hoops behemoth it is today? Would adidas have kicks as valuable as Air Jordans? We’ll never know the answers to those questions, since minutes away from signing the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan himself, adidas totally blew it with LeBron.
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Yes, it’s true. According to sports marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro, the man who brokered Michael Jordan’s first shoe contract with Nike, adidas had the first shot at signing LeBron (who rocked adidas throughout high school). In the early 2000s, when LeBron was a junior at Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School, Vaccaro was working for adidas; and after watching LeBron play a couple of times, he was convinced he was going to be the next great thing. So he went to adidas execs and advised them to offer LeBron a generous deal, and to lock him up for ten years.
Vaccaro detailed his pitch on The Ringer’s “NBA Show” Podcast. He said, “I wanted adidas to give him $100 million, $10 million a year, guaranteed. $100 million is what it would have come to. And that number was off the wall. No one [had] ever gotten close to that [at the time]. We were going to bet our whole future on this kid, LeBron. There was no question that he wasn’t going to be courted by other people because obviously he was going to be, but no one believed in him, not $100 million worth. That I do know.”
adidas execs agreed with Vaccaro, deciding to offer LeBron a sum of money no NBA player had ever seen before to sign the budding superstar and lace him in adidas for the forseeable future. Ecstatic, Vaccaro flew LeBron out to Los Angeles to take in a Lakers game and sit down and sign the contract. With LeBron, LeBron’s mother Gloria, and LeBron’s lawyer all in the room, Vaccaro got a look at the final contract. But instead of $100 million staring back at him, the number had dropped.
“I saw the contract. It wasn’t $100 million. It was like $70 million, and they had incentives on it,” Vaccaro said. “It wasn’t so much the number, $70 million or $100 million, because $70 million was a hell of a lot of money, right? But you have to understand what it was to me. The reason I was, and I still am respected, I believe, in that world, is [that] if I said something to you, you [would] believe me. If we had a deal, we had a deal. [adidas] changed the number on me. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
The sudden change allowed Nike to eventually jump in with a $90 million offer to steal LeBron away from adidas for good, and adidas’s lowball offer angered Vaccaro so much that he up and quit the company.
How different the basketball sneaker landscape might look had adidas landed LeBron.
“I said then, I’ll say until I die, the biggest mistake ever made in corporate America on this sort of a thing, was when adidas backed out of signing LeBron James,” Vaccaro said. “[If] they sign LeBron James, the world changes.”