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How Adidas’s Lowball Offer Sent LeBron James to Nike

Sonny Vaccaro recounts how Adidas let the NBA’s most important player slip through its fingers

Getty Images
Getty Images

At St. Vincent-St Mary High School, LeBron James almost always wore Adidas. The photos are out there. The shoe exists. But when it came time for James to enter the NBA, he switched his allegiance to Nike, a partnership he’ll now maintain for life. James generates hundreds of millions of dollars for Nike each year. With double the sales of the next-most-popular player, James is the single most important athlete in the sneaker universe.

How did Adidas miss out on such a lucrative opportunity? According to Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive who was working with Adidas at the time, Adidas had a chance to land James with a 10-year, $100 million contract. Adidas could afford it, too — the company still had Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady selling shoes for it. But Adidas lowered its offer to $70 million at the last minute, allowing Nike to swoop in with a $90 million deal to land the future superstar. Vaccaro explained how it all went down to Chris Vernon on the latest Ringer NBA Show.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Context

Sonny Vaccaro: You have to understand, Kobe got $1.5 million with other things in [his] contract. Tracy got close to maybe $1.82 million. So the numbers were moving up, but nobody was paying … anybody that kind of money. And Adidas was rolling. Well, we were, I convinced the owners. 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.

That number, I talked to [Adidas’s owners], looked them in the eye … and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ I never would have [offered $100 million] to LeBron James [if they hadn’t said yes]. I mean, what advantage was that, to lie? They OK’ed it. So they knew, $100 million. I didn’t spring it on them that day. They knew for nine months.

The Presentation

S.V.: So now we come down to the presentation. We bring him and his whole team on. Private airplane. We’re going to get them [to] a Lakers playoff game. Imagine in Malibu, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and we lay out the plan. And the number [was] supposed to be $100 million. I sat down that day [with] Gloria James, [LeBron’s] lawyer, and … LeBron, and all these people. I saw the contract. It wasn’t $100 million. It was like $70 million, and they had incentives on it.

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.

We went to a little corner of this mansion. Gloria, me, LeBron … and I apologized. I’ll never forget what they did. They put their arms around me and they said, “Sonny, we understand. We know what you did. We’re going to be fine.”

Chris Vernon: Do you think you would’ve gotten them if the money was right?

S.V.: Well, I believe we would’ve, yeah. It’s hard to say that now, because everything’s gone so well. Do I think so? Yeah. Absolutely. Or I would’ve forced Nike to do $120 million, or $125 million.

The Aftermath

S.V.: 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. [If] they sign LeBron James, the world changes.

Nike was no. 1 before LeBron. Nike had great players. They always will. They were always no. 1 with the greatest personalities in sports. There’s no question about that. I don’t think that will ever change. My point to you is, [Adidas] could’ve changed the landscape.

But my more important point: Even though Adidas has done well, they signed some really good players … Sebastian Telfair, Dwight Howard, a lot of guys, but no one ever, since then, has ever come [close] to what James was. It was the dumbest, stupidest thing a corporate company ever did.

I quit. I knew I was going to quit [Adidas] that day. We were going — it was in Malibu — and I don’t know if anyone can visualize it, but there’s all these canyons, and we lived on the other side of the canyons. This is another thing: We’re riding home, I turn to my wife, you know, my trusted companion, and I said, “You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?” And she said, “I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to quit, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah.” I couldn’t handle it. I just couldn’t do it. Because … I could not exist in that world if my word wasn’t good.

Now [LeBron’s] going to make a billion dollars at Nike before it’s all over.