Skip to content

Drafting Partners? 3 Lessons from the NBA

Have you ever seen a pair of shoes named after Sam Bowie? Me neither.

In 1984, Sam Bowie, a 7-foot-1 center from Kentucky was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers—one spot ahead of a shooting guard named Michael Jordan. It is still regarded as one of the most infamous draft busts of all time.

Big brands have been using celebrity brand ambassadors for decades. Using market research from E-Poll that examines the most popular sportswear brands and the NBA players who endorse them, we decided to take a look at how brands and athletes partner to create an aligned brand image.  

In the sports endorsement world, awareness and popularity of an athlete or a brand doesn’t necessarily make for an endorsement slam dunk. The same applies in the business world. Here are three important lessons about alignment that brands can learn from the NBA.

Brand partnerships should support your Brand Story.

The research shows a high level of correlation between awareness of the players and their rank on the Top Players list. Nike ranks top in awareness and they’re sponsoring some of the most well-known players, like Lebron James and Kevin Durant.

But awareness isn’t everything. Just behind Nike in the rankings, Adidas has made significant strides in catching up. While Nike is positioned as innovative and widely popular, Adidas has increased partnerships with endorsers who have a notable “cool” factor. Brand alignments with Derrick Rose and musician Pharrell Williams show that Adidas is targeting an audience interested in style and fashion, in addition to sports. And it appears to be working, positioning Adidas as a fashion-forward athletic brand in the mind of the consumer.

Derrick Rose for Adidas

So what does this mean for businesses working with clients, outside vendors, and strategic partners?


  • Look at your Brand Story and determine if your end vision aligns well with this strategic partner.
  • If your stories start to depart, you need to have the checks in place to make the split where necessary.

Say what you mean. Do what you say.

Under Armour sponsors one of the most marketable players in the league, Steph Curry. The E-Poll research shows the two-time MVP ranks high for both talent and appeal. Unfortunately, the shoes released under his name haven’t lived up to the same reputation, and the sneakers were roundly roasted on Twitter for being boring and ugly.


Under Armour may have partnered with the best player, but the product didn’t reflect the opportunity. A great spokesperson can’t make up for a product that’s doesn’t communicate those same values.


  • Having partners who are invested in mutual success is key. Ensure that your strategic partners are on the same page as you with regular, mutual communication and checkpoints for marketing effectiveness.
  • When evaluating partnerships for your business, look for partners that have a proven record of agility and adaptability in an ever-evolving digital market.

Don’t go it alone.

Research shows that Big Baller Brand is struggling to find appeal or awareness in the athletic footwear arena. This is in large part due to the purposefully-high price point—and the fact that they have no signed athletes other than Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, the owner’s son.

Big Baller Brand has made a few poor choices when developing their brand awareness. A tendency toward brashness and scandal keeps bigger partnerships from taking a risk on the brand.Even the logo itself is confusing;

half of the respondents thought it stood for the Better Business Bureau. Without trusted partnerships, the brand will continue to struggle to take off. Their Brand Story is largely dependent on Lonzo’s career and the outspoken nature of its owner.


  • You can go it alone, but finding partners that can help you boost your brand is a great way to distribute your story to a much wider audience.
  • Performing all marketing and strategic tasks internally can limit your brand’s ability to adapt and grow in a diverse, complicated market.

When choosing a partner for your business, how do you know if you’ve got a Michael Jordan or a Sam Bowie? It’s largely luck—you can’t expect every pick to win the lottery.

What we do know is that transformational partnerships are symbiotic—they create long-term value for both parties. By using these lessons to guide you when evaluating potential brand partnerships, you can mitigate your selection risk, ensure initial alignment, and hopefully avoid the marketing mayhem that can come with poorly aligned strategic partnerships.

Partnerships Requiring Strategic & Operational Alignment

For example, when Aprimo, a platform for high-velocity marketing, recognized their client partners were suffering operational mayhem, they in turn partnered with an objective third party organization to coordinate research to better understand the operational pain points. In partnership with Aprimo, we coordinated research to understand the operational pain points that marketers were suffering with, and we put together a whitepaper to help marketers manage the chaos that comes with the today’s operational marketing needs. The insights are relevant to the entire category of high-velocity marketing platforms.

Selecting partners is important, but if you can’t manage the day to day of that relationship, you will find that even the most aligned partnerships fall apart. You have to bring your marketing operations into the 21st century in order to do this. Check out the whitepaper below to learn more about how you can overcome marketing mayhem.


Click here to download the whitepaper now, or fill out the form below.

Access the Whitepaper Now! 


Follow @TopRightPartner on Twitter, connect with Dave on LinkedIn, and subscribe to our blog.