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Everything You Need to Know About the Sneaker Wars Raging Inside March Madness

Nike is losing its commanding lead.

Nike sneakers on basketball court Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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There are more than 18.8 million March Madness brackets on ESPN alone. Chances are you or someone you know has been affected by the bounce of a basketball recently. I felt personally victimized when Duke lost over the weekend, erasing any chance of winning my office pool, the winner of which gets, wait for it, a pizza. But it's safe to say that sneaker executives watching from their lairs have much more to lose than the approximate retail value of $17. March Madness is a major opportunity for brands like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour to put their goods on display and there's a reason for every type of person to care.

Explain it to me like I’m a data nerd: To the surprise of no one, Nike absolutely dominates this space. Of the 64 teams in this year’s tournament, 38 of them wear Nike; that’s 60 percent. Adidas is next with 15, while Under Armour has 11, according to numbers collected by Apex Marketing Group. It might look like Nike has a big lead, but it's been waning in recent years. And if March Madness has taught us anything, it’s that the Goliaths are destined to fall and no lead is ever safe. Just two years ago, 71 percent of the 68 teams in the initial field were sponsored by Nike, and only one school wore Under Armour. Adidas has gained four teams since 2015, when 11 schools wore its sneakers.

Explain it to me like this is a tale of consumerism: This shit really matters, man. Sports industry analyst Matt Powell told Footwear News last year that March Madness is the fifth-most important event for brands trying to sell basketball shoes. “March Madness gets the consumer in the mindset to buy basketball product,” said footwear industry analyst Jeff Van Sinderen. In 2016, sales of basketball shoes jumped 24.3 percent two weeks prior to the start of the tournament. Be Like Monk doesn’t have the same ring to it as Be Like Mike, but clearly something’s working here.

Increased excitement around buying things is especially important this year because sneaker sales were down in February. Part of this, according to Powell, is that tax returns aren’t coming as quickly as usual, and that’s the extra cash flow families use to make bigger purchases, like fancy sneakers.

Explain it to me like I’m a conspiracy theorist: Below is a graph that breaks down the winning percentage each brand has in the tourney. As you can see, teams wearing Nike have the highest winning percentage, while squads in Adidas have the lowest. Yikes.

Adidas teams have also won less games than Under Armour ones, despite having several more teams in the tourney. And Adidas teams have been on the wrong side of upsets twice, while Under Armour-wearing teams have been behind two upsets. And despite dressing “only” 60 percent of the teams in the tournament, Nike-wearing squads own 71 percent of the wins thus far.

I’m not saying Nike and Under Armour do a better job of optimizing their gear for athletes than Adidas does, but real conspiracy theorists will never forget when a Nike designer tweeted out that Derrick Rose made a mistake by signing with the Three Stripes after his first devastating injury. “#shouldasignedwithNIKE,” he wrote.

Explain it to me like I’m a sneakerhead: W magazine has an in-depth story that gets at how athletes and changing play styles affect the sneakers we wear. It’s not as March Madness-specific as the headline would lead you to believe, but it is March Madness-adjacent. Know that Lonzo Ball’s bizzaro shooting style might affect the next hot sneaker the same way Kyrie Irving’s stop-and-go movements inspired the technology, and thus the look, of his signature shoe. As fashionable as Nike’s shoes have become, the company remains dedicated to performance.

Explain it to me like I’m a draftnik: March Madness doesn’t just affect the shoes we’re thinking about now; it also plays a pivotal role in future deals. Sneaker executives are said to spend this time watching prospects to see who they should offer deals to once they go pro. “This is ‘recruiting season’ for the brands,” Van Sinderen told Footwear News. “They see who the latest rising stars are and work to ‘align and sign’ the best of the best performers.”

Explain it to me like I don’t care about any of this, but did you say pizza? The three mega-brands aren’t the only ones successfully leveraging March Madness sneakers to sell things. Pizza Hut also released what it’s calling Pie Tops. They’re high-top shoes with a button that you can press to make a pizza magically appear. Too bad touching your toes will be impossible if society decides to embrace this kind of technology.

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