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Why Kevin Durant getting a lifetime Nike contract is a big deal

After Kevin Durant became just the third basketball player to sign a lifetime contract with Nike, SportsPro analyses the Phoenix Suns star's commercial appeal.

5 May 2023 Sam Carp

Getty Images

Kevin Durant is a two-time NBA champion and a two-time NBA finals MVP. He has made 13 All-Star Game appearances and is one of only three players to have had multiple 50-40-90 seasons. If it weren’t for the indominable LeBron James, he’d probably be talked about as the best player of a generation. 

I’m no massive basketball fan, but Durant has always felt like one of those athletes who is somewhat underappreciated because he has been playing during a period where his sport has revolved around a superhuman individual or rivalry. Think Karim Benzema in the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Andy Murray in the era of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, or Venus Williams in the era of her sister Serena.

Where the Phoenix Suns star ranks in the history of NBA greats will no doubt be the subject of newspaper columns and podcasts as he nears the end of his career, but the 34-year-old’s legend is already secure in the eyes of his longstanding sponsor Nike, which last week tied Durant down to a lifetime deal.

Durant is only the third basketball player to sign a deal for life with the US sportswear giant, which doesn’t hand out these contracts to just anyone. Don’t believe me? It’s a short list:

1. LeBron James 

Having first teamed up with Nike when he turned professional in 2003, James went on to sign a lifetime contract with the manufacturer in 2015, when it was reported that the terms represented the biggest deal in the Oregon-based company’s history. 

2. Michael Jordan

The story of Jordan’s relationship with Nike is well-traced and one you’re probably more familiar with if you’ve watched the new movie Air. The initial deal signed in 1984 was reportedly worth only US$500,000 per year but is widely credited for redefining the business of athlete endorsements due to the revenue share clause it included. Today, it is estimated that the 60-year-old has earned more than US$1 billion from his relationship with Nike, with his Jordan Brand line of sneakers and apparel becoming a money-printing cultural phenomenon.

Nike’s Jordan Brand has become a cultural phenomenon

3. Cristiano Ronaldo

First picked up by Nike in 2003, Ronaldo was at the peak of his powers with Real Madrid when he secured his lifetime contract with the brand – a deal reported to be worth US$1 billion. Controversies later in the Portuguese player’s career appear to have done little to damage his commercial appeal, with the 38-year-old ranked last year as the world’s most marketable athlete

So why KD?

In addition to James, Jordan and Ronaldo, Nike is also synonymous with the careers of sporting greats like Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, who have been front and centre of some of the brand’s most memorable campaigns. 

While renowned in North America, Durant’s name arguably does not carry the same global recognition as some of those aforementioned athletes, so it’s worth considering why Nike was keen to secure his services for life…

A longstanding, profitable relationship

Nike first signed Durant in 2007 when he was drafted second overall by the Seattle Supersonics. Since then, the partnership has produced 15 signature shoes and Durant debuted a 16th pair earlier in the playoffs. 

From a commercial perspective, Forbes estimated in 2019 that Durant earns US$26 million from his deal with Nike, but the deal is prosperous for the brand, too. Rich Kleiman, who is Durant’s agent and business partner, has said that the company sells more KD shoes in China than in North America. In 2019, Cowen & Co claimed that the Durant Nike franchise grew double digits. 

What’s more is that the KD shoes are also popular with NBA players, who wore them on-court for a combined 18,751 minutes this season, according to Boardroom – affording Nike with additional exposure.

Off-court endeavours 

Durant is known for philanthropic efforts through his foundation and Nike’s support of his charitable initiatives was cited in the announcement of the lifetime deal.

Beyond that, though, Durant has been growing an investment portfolio and media empire through 35 Ventures, which he runs alongside Kleiman. He now has stakes in MLS side Philadelphia Union, a Major League Pickleball team and women’s sports league network Athletes Unlimited, as well as Mitchell & Ness, Tiger Woods’ TMRW Sports venture and sports software startup ScorePlay.

That will have given Nike confidence that even when he retires, Durant will still be active in the public arena. Plus, there could even be opportunities for collaboration on some of those projects further down the line.

Durant attends a Nike commercial event in China in 2013

A baller on the court

Much of this comes back to the achievements I listed at the start of this newsletter. Nike’s interest in Durant started because of his potential and has endured because of his success. 

He might not get talked about in the same way as some of those that have transcended their sport, but there are few better endorsements of a glittering career than a lifetime association with the biggest sportswear brand in the world.

Presence felt

Serendipitously, Durant snuck into Forbes’ recent ranking of the world’s ten highest-paid athletes with a cool US$89.1 million in earnings for 2023 – a figure evenly split between his salary and endorsement deals. 

The biggest takeaway, however, is how the flow of Middle Eastern money is influencing who features in the ranking and the amounts they are making. Half of those on the list have ties to either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which is more a symptom than a cause of their success, but it’s still a trend worth highlighting.

Ronaldo: The Portuguese soccer star is the world’s highest-paid athlete for the first time since 2017 on the back of his transfer from Manchester United to Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr. There were reports in the past that he turned down an offer to become the face of the country’s tourism authority.

Lionel Messi: The same cannot be said for Ronaldo’s great rival, who was this week suspended by club side PSG for going on a personal promotional trip to Saudi Arabia without permission. He is a tourism ambassador for the kingdom and ranks second on the Forbes list. 

Kylian Mbappe: Completing the top three in Forbes’ ranking is French sensation Mbappe, a teammate of Messi’s at PSG, who are owned by Qatar Sports Investments. 

Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson: Two of the most recognised golfers became de facto ambassadors for Saudi Arabia last year when they left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, which is propped up by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Both feature in the Forbes top ten despite losing sponsors since joining the breakaway tour, while Johnson wasn’t even among the top 50 highest-paid athletes in 2022.  

Top dealers

News that the Wasserman agency has launched a new investment arm was swiftly followed by the announcement that it is backing cycling’s new Circuit Racing International Tour (CRIT). 

Wasserman has been in an acquisitive mood over the past 12 months, snapping up the likes of BSE Media GroupEsportifJet Sports Management and Mullhaupt Management

Consolidation has been sweeping through the agency world, but this latest move demonstrates that some of the biggest companies in the sector are no longer content with simply negotiating athlete contracts and commercial deals. 

Perhaps buoyed by the success of WME under Endeavor, they’re also now prepared to branch into venture investing.

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