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How pandemic supply chain issues have impacted NBA stars’ sneaker releases

From LeBron James to Stephen Curry to LaMelo Ball, everyone’s been waiting for their ships to come in

Discussing supply chain issues while film showed a shipping container plodding through the ocean probably wasn’t how Oklahoma City Thunder forward Darius Bazley envisioned his first national TV ad for New Balance.

As global factory stoppages and shipping delays continued through the late summer and into the fall of 2021, the brand’s upstart basketball category decided to face its lack of recent launches head-on in a spot dubbed Shoe Commercial (No Shoe).

“All that freshness. Probably just sitting on a ship in the middle of the ocean,” Bazley deadpanned.

“Product supply issues,” added Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray. “You get it.”

The follow-up to its Two WXY shoe, which Murray, Bazley and San Antonio Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray were all set to headline, still hasn’t launched. Kawhi Leonard’s Kawhi 2 signature shoe with New Balance has been similarly stalled from debuting in stores. (Much like Leonard himself, who has been sidelined by a knee injury he suffered last spring.)

Darius Bazley of the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 31 at Paycom Center.

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

The sliding calendar isn’t just a New Balance issue. It’s a struggle facing every brand in the 2021-22 regular season. Typically, many of the league’s more than 20 signature shoes and statement team shoes are launched in October and November, with detailed rollout plans, social media posts and advertising campaigns mapped out during the summer leading into the season.

Instead, for the past six months, the footwear and athletic apparel industry has been ravaged by factory closures resulting from pandemic-related health and safety measures in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.

Around 51% of Nike’s footwear is made in Vietnam, with another 24% produced in Indonesia, according to the brand. Many of the fall’s launches were simply lost on the calendar after a July-through-September stoppage created a 10-week window in which Nike had zero production in Vietnam.

In all, more than 130 million units of Nike products went unproduced. Nike chief financial officer Matt Friend said on a recent earnings call that half of the company’s apparel production is performed in the region as well. The brand’s estimated shipping timelines from Asia to the U.S. were extended from 40 days to 80 days. (Shipping products by air is exponentially more expensive per unit than via boat and rarely done.)

The impact was almost immediate. When Space Jam: A New Legacy was released in late July 2021, it served as a huge platform for LeBron James to debut his newest signature shoe, the LeBron 19, during the Tune Squad’s dramatic matchup with the Goon Squad.

The sneaker, styled in the vivid orange and blue hues of the Tune Squad’s uniforms in the remake, was initially slated to be launched in August 2021 with limited and exclusive releases on Nike’s SNKRS app, with a global launch to follow in September. Instead, the shoes dropped on Dec. 18, 2021, with the energy around the movie months in the rearview mirror.

“We are not immune to the global supply chain headwinds that are challenging the [production] and movement of product around the world,” Friend said. “We expect all geographies to be impacted by these factors.”

In the week leading into Black Friday, the kickoff to the Christmas buying season, Nike notified retailers that it would be unable to produce multiple seasons worth of upcoming products that had already been ordered, canceling future orders for spring 2022, summer 2022 and “the balance” of holiday 2021.

The company says production has been back to 80% of capacity since October 2021, but still expects delays to continue until at least the spring of 2022.

The MB.01 Puma sneakers worn by LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets during a game against the Washington Wizards on Nov. 17, 2021, at Spectrum Center.

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

When Puma signed LaMelo Ball to a multiyear shoe deal days before he was selected as the third overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, the brand was betting big on the former Big Baller Brand headliner. Making him its first signature basketball athlete in more than two decades was no small declaration. Puma sped up the typical 14- to 18-month timeline for a signature shoe to have his first sneaker ready in under a year.

With Ball coming off a rookie of the year debut, Puma aimed to launch his first shoe during the back-to-school selling window just as his sophomore season was beginning. The $125 shoe was planned to be launched in bright red, aimed at a middle and high school crowd that was also beginning their own school basketball seasons soon. Instead, the “Red Blast” shoe was delayed until December, with three more colorways just now being released in February ahead of NBA All-Star Weekend.

Similarly, Adidas was looking to launch new signature shoes for two of its brand headliners, James Harden and Damian Lillard, as the season got underway. After eight seasons in Houston, Harden was set to kick off his first full season with his newest franchise in Brooklyn, New York, in his sixth signature shoe from The Three Stripes.

Now it’s February and the Harden Vol. 6 sneaker still hasn’t been released, a victim of factory closures that’s resulted in just 10 Harden items on the Adidas brand web store, none of which are sneakers.

Lillard was looking to build off the momentum of his first Olympic appearance with the launch of his upcoming Dame 8 shoe to start the season. Instead, when the shoe was stalled for three months, Lillard began the Trail Blazers’ schedule in the Dame 7 EXTPLY, which was still on store shelves and available throughout the fall.

He eventually began wearing the new shoe in December 2021 ahead of its delayed retail launch, donning the 8 in just nine games before being sidelined in early January and eventually undergoing abdominal surgery that now has his season return in question.

In November 2021, Adidas outlined how factory closures in Vietnam — where 28% of its production comes from — had led to more than 100 million units going unproduced during the second half of 2021, an estimated revenue hit of 1.2 billion euros.

Another major star, Stephen Curry, has also faced timing issues.

After being launched in December 2020, Curry Brand executives and designers were already looking ahead to the biggest milestone of its namesake’s already impressive resume. Curry was set to break the league’s 3-point record at some point during the opening months of the following season. The brand designed a special edition of his upcoming Curry Flow 9 model for the occasion, whenever it happened to be.

As it turned out, Curry broke Ray Allen’s record in Madison Square Garden in mid-December 2021, with Allen and Reggie Miller on hand in the world’s most famous arena. Curry arrived in a hoodie and hat bearing the “2974” logo (for the record-breaking number of made shots), then confidently laced up “2974” themed sneakers before facing off against the Knicks. Unfortunately, the special edition shoes won’t be released until the spring, hopefully as the Warriors return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus.

When the manufacturing issues became noticeable over the summer, Curry Brand found a creative way to celebrate Stephen Curry’s record-setting night through NFT collections.

Curry Brand

When the manufacturing issues became noticeable over the summer, Curry Brand looked for a creative way to celebrate the record-setting night, knowing the physical shoes were likely still months away from being available for consumers. They turned to the digital world, offering one of the first NFT collections for a signature shoe that the industry has seen. With five variations of the tokens available in a series numbered to 2,974, the full collection sold out in nine minutes and generated $999,000 in revenue.

The 2974.CurryBrand.com microsite received more than 25 million visitors in the four days surrounding the launch, with more than 4 million consumers attempting to buy the limited number of collectibles. Curry Brand said it will donate 100% of the funds to community organizations focused on providing youth access to sports.

Several brands are looking to release digital sneakers as production issues with physical sneakers continue to interrupt product plans.

In the closing months of 2021, several brands filed for trademarks related to digital offerings. Nike is set to launch its own foray into the metaverse in the coming months to coincide with the company’s 50th anniversary. And the company is reconfiguring its operational approach among the factory disruptions.

“Our teams are shifting to a seasonless approach as we navigate the inventory we have for the balance of the year,” Friend said. “In order to make sure that we can fulfill consumer demand with the supply we have, versus delaying further.”

In other words, while brands wait for their ships to come in, consumers will face ongoing delays in finding the footwear being laced up nightly over the rest of the NBA season.

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.