Nike signs No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu to multiyear endorsement deal

Apr 17, 2020

Nick DePaulaESPN

The reigning NCAA national player of the year and the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick, Sabrina Ionescu, has signed a multiyear endorsement deal with Nike. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Ionescu took to Instagram after the shoe and apparel deal was announced Friday.

The 5-foot-11 point guard, whom the New York Liberty made the top pick in Friday’s WNBA draft, forged a relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight during her time starring at Oregon, his alma mater, where she became the first NCAA basketball player — male or female — to record more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a collegiate career. She also compiled a record 26 triple-doubles during her four-year span with the Ducks, making her the NCAA’s all-time leader.

Playing less than two hours south of Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, her proximity to the Nike campus and its close ties to the University of Oregon all factored into making Ionescu a priority signing amid aggressive offers and compelling competition from other brands.

“During a time when we all need sport more than ever, we are thrilled to have a generational talent like Sabrina join the Nike family,” said Rosemary St. Clair, the VP/general manager of Nike Women. “Together, we’re going to bring even more excitement to the game of basketball and inspire the next generation of athletes.”

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The Ducks hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in 11 years before Ionescu arrived. With Ionescu at the helm, they were slated for a fourth consecutive tourney berth this spring. Just a week removed from the NCAA’s March 12 decision to cancel its postseason tournament in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the presumptive top draft pick opened shoe-deal talks with multiple brands.

Among them, the Bay Area native had entered into negotiations over the past month with Under Armour, dealing directly with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and the brand’s top basketball executives in talks on a multiyear deal. Curry has long championed women in sports, even designing an annual edition of his latest signature shoe in tandem with young inspirational girls.

Ionescu said it was a tough decision, but it’s one she is most comfortable with, despite counting Curry as her “favorite player ever since he entered the league and being with the Warriors.”

“Obviously going to an Oregon school and coming from Nike and knowing Phil Knight and just knowing everyone on the Nike side [factored into the decision],” she told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in a video conversation. “But then the flip side: Steph Curry and everything he’s about. It was a really tough decision for me, but ultimately I think Nike is the best decision — just kind of staying loyal to my roots and continuing to be a Nike athlete at the professional level.”

Sneaker wars! New No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu tells me about the full-court press she got from Steph Curry to sign with Under Armor and why she eventually chose to stick with Nike instead – “it was really hard – Steph has been my favorite player since he entered the league.”

— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 18, 2020

In addition to Nike and Under Armour, Ionescu also drew interest from Puma, which has recently reentered not only the NBA space but also made signing WNBA players and supporting the women’s game a pillar of its basketball comeback.

As negotiations continued through March and into April, the 22-year-old Ionescu secured offers worth multiple times her expected WNBA salary, according to industry sources. The company offers were even outpacing the value of recent WNBA Finals MVP-level player deals.

“The money is important, but I think the vision and kind of the plan they have in place for me, and what I can do not only for the sport, but for basketball and society,” she said of her priorities on John Canzano’s podcast.

Ionescu’s future impact and potential are believed to extend far beyond the floor, as brand reps and industry executives speak of her in generational tones — a role model who could inspire a future generation of young girls and boys to play the game.

Coupled with stardom earned during her Oregon tenure, the potential of Ionescu leading a revamped Liberty squad now positioned to play games at Barclays Center only added to the appeal for brands. Brooklyn Nets ownership acquired the Liberty franchise from New York Knicks owner James Dolan last year.

“The marketability that is there in New York, and kind of the hustle and bustle, is something that I think could be not only beneficial to myself as a person, but as a brand, and for women’s basketball,” Ionescu said during a conference call with reporters earlier this week, although she admitted she has visited only twice.

There is also renewed optimism for a resurgence in WNBA interest as the league begins a new collective bargaining agreement that not only drastically increases player compensation but also outlines health, wellness and logistical benefits and upgrades for its members. The league is also committing more to marketing players and highlighting their personalities across social media, even launching dedicated accounts such as @WNBAkicks.

While Ionescu has since hired agency WME to handle additional marketing endorsement deals, such as her new deal with headphone company Beats By Dre, she has navigated the shoe talks on her own, discussing plans and potential campaigns with brands over a series of video conferences and telephone calls in the past month. She also hired longtime veteran agent Bill Duffy to handle her WNBA contract needs, with Duffy helping to serve as an adviser throughout the footwear process.

Ionescu earned an undergraduate degree at Oregon in general social sciences, along with a minor in legal sciences, in just 36 months on campus. During her senior year, she pursued a master’s degree in advertising and brand responsibility from Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications, where she zeroed in on the dynamics surrounding the lucrative athletic industry that awaited her.

Throughout her career at Oregon, Ionescu wore a variety of Nike models, namely low-top sneakers from Kobe Bryant’s line or the Hyperdunk series. Over the years, her friendship with Bryant grew, as she also developed a mentoring relationship with his daughter Gianna and her fellow Mamba youth basketball teammates, working out at the Mamba Sports Academy with the teenage team that Bryant and fellow parents led.

A month after the tragic January death of Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a Los Angeles-area helicopter crash, Ionescu was one of a select few in the basketball community to speak during the memorial service at Staples Center in February. For each game following the events of Jan. 26, Ionescu wrote tribute messages to the Bryants on her sneakers.

In addition to potential future connections to Bryant’s ongoing product line, Ionescu was said to also heavily value her continued bond with Oregon. In November, Nike made the rare decision to release a women’s NCAA jersey in unisex sizing, launching green-and-yellow-accented No. 20 Ducks jerseys without any name on the back. Surely it was by no coincidence, of course, despite the NCAA’s amateurism guidelines.

The $75 replica jerseys sold out online in less than an hour and have been reselling for twice as much ever since. With Ionescu now a professional endorser, Nike can launch official authentic Ionescu No. 20 Ducks jerseys in the future as it pleases. The brand is also the official outfitter of the WNBA, having recently redesigned the Liberty’s new black-and-seafoam uniforms.

During negotiations, brands took a wait-and-see approach in regard to offering a signature shoe, dangling the idea of a future Ionescu sneaker should certain performance incentives or moments warrant it within their strategies — though not outright including such a shoe in their official offers. “Before this all happened, I never thought about it because I didn’t think it was even a possibility, because women don’t usually have signature shoes,” Ionescu said on NBC Sports’ “Runnin’ Plays” podcast. “Listening to a lot of these companies and the goals and visions that they had to have a signature shoe down the line, I was like, ‘Oh, actually that would be pretty cool.'”

Throughout WNBA history, signature sneakers have been scarce. Nike launched namesake models during the 1990s and early 2000s for Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, Dawn Staley and Chamique Holdsclaw, while also releasing the subtly named “Shox DT” and “Max DT” models inspired by Diana Taurasi in the late 2000s.

Adidas released “Ace” sneakers headlined by Candace Parker. During the late 1990s, Reebok launched its lone “Lobo” model for Liberty star Rebecca Lobo, while Fila released the “Nikki Delta” for Nikki McCray. In 2011, Maya Moore became the first WNBA player to sign with Jordan Brand.

Elena Delle Donne most recently helped inspire Nike’s new Flyease sneaker last year, a universal strap-affixed shoe designed with athletes with disabilities in mind, in honor of her sister Lizzie Delle Donne, but it isn’t technically regarded as a true signature shoe.

Ionescu is hoping to one day earn that distinction and potentially change the narrative around the industry’s lack of female representation in the rare air of signature sneakers.

“I feel like a lot of individuals would want to buy that shoe and wear that shoe,” she added on the “Runnin’ Plays” podcast. “I do think a shoe would be really cool, or like a clothing line or something. It would be awesome and beyond belief, just because I’m so used to buying other people’s shoes and looking up to them. Having that reciprocated would be awesome.”

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