Liverpool, LeBron James and Nike unveiled their new merchandise collection last week – but what comes next?
The timing, as it has tended to be across one of the most decorated NBA careers of all time, was perfect from LeBron James last week.
On the eve of his brand new collaboration with Liverpool being launched to the world, the iconic James made basketball history by netting a 20-point triple-double for the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in the process with his 38,388th point.
As product roll-outs go, it was manna-from-Heaven for those at Liverpool as they put the final touches on their brand new LeBron Collection venture ahead of its official release on Thursday morning.
We organised that one really well didn’t we!” jokes senior vice president of Liverpool FC’s merchandising, Mike Cox.
The ability to create such sporting history is one of the key selling points Liverpool have on their hands when it comes to James, who is widely regarded as the greatest basketballer of his generation.
Being able to utilise the worldwide star power of an athlete of the 38-year-old’s magnitude was one of the major reasons Liverpool were so keen to strike up the partnership with current kit suppliers Nike back in 2019, when their desire to move away from their successful terms with New Balance ended in the High Court.
With close to 200m followers across Twitter and Instagram, James, as one of the most recognisable sportsmen on the planet, can open doors in the lucrative market of the United States for Liverpool. That the LA Lakers star was also a former minority shareholder at Anfield, before converting that into a one percent stake of the Fenway Sports Group empire almost two years ago following RedBird Capital’s purchase of 11 per cent of FSG, is also a significant element to what is now a thriving, almost unique partnership between club, athlete and sports brand.
The relationship between James and Liverpool has become increasingly more aligned over the past two years, with the inking of the club’s deal with Nike to follow on from New Balance as kit supplier in 2019, a deal they were willing to head to the High Court to win, key to unlocking the potential.
Following on from that kit deal, one that kicked open the door for them to create new Liverpool merchandising lines with one of the most recognisable athletes globally in modern sport, came investments by FSG, RedBird and Nike in James’ SpringHill Entertainment Company, a culture firm he co-founded with long-time friend and business associate Maverick Carter, himself an FSG partner. There is a simpatico relationship that exists across a number of platforms that allows both FSG to leverage the appeal of James as they target new markets and seek to grown in existing ones, and one that builds James’ own business portfolio and gives him a clear path towards NBA team ownership in the future, with FSG’s plan to acquire an expansion franchise in Las Vegas in the coming years that James will likely helm.
Liverpool have plans for growing their retail operations, and with markets like the US growing their interest in the Premier League, having someone like James as a focal point for growing their commercial opportunities among demographics they may not have previously reached allows them to open up avenues to becoming a lifestyle brand as well as appealing to global fans, something that Paris Saint-Germain have had success in through their link-up with Nike’s subsidiary company Air Jordan, the brand formed on the back of the stellar success of another basketball icon, Michael Jordan, some 38 years ago.
Neil Joyce, co-founder of the CLV Group, a firm that works with football clubs and other industries to help them unlock incremental value in their fans and customers, told the ECHO recently: “I think the concept of it is super smart.
“In the US you have people who have an affinity for soccer but may not have a club. Those same people may not be a Los Angeles Lakers fan but they might be a LeBron James fan, or a follower of his on Instagram. You have immediately dropped through trying to migrate a Lakers fan to support Liverpool.
“I think that is the way a lot of this goes, the talent angle. Whether it is another sporting talent or a music artist, I think it is an interesting exercise for lots of clubs to go through to try and unlock global fanbases.
“You look at the success of what (Heung-Min) Son’s appeal in Korea has had at Tottenham. It is obvious in some respects but you have to activate against it and it is a case of what stars or artists have a really strong correlation with the core value of your club and what their audiences look like. It is almost a multi-layered approach to bring together LeBron James’ fan base with Liverpool’s fan base in the US and other markets.
“The jury is still out on just how successful that is but as a concept it makes a lot of sense and I think that it is a really smart way to try and unlock and engage with those global audiences.”
Having the ability to reach different demographics in different countries through such a multi-layered approach is something that is very much part of plan for the Nike, James and Liverpool link-up.
“I think brand collaboration in the lifestyle space can take you to a different type of fan, maybe someone who is less interested in some of the existing products that we have on offer,” added Cox, who revealed that James had been helping to grow the visibility of the partnership through public appearances in Liverpool/Nike merchandise without being asked.
“The LeBron collaboration tweaks is something they want, they may like the design and then there is also the piece where he has his own fanbase and that brings potentially new fans into Liverpool as a club and then they get to learn all about the fantastic things at the club and they then become lifelong fans, hopefully.
“The range that we have just launched is the first of more to come. It’s all about how we work together. He’s based in the US and there are things that he can do over there and some he can’t as he is contracted to the LA Lakers and he is contracted to Nike as well. We try and make the best use of him that we can that works for everyone to create the best result.
“I think if you tried to envisage what something should look like, I think you’d see that relationship [of club, Nike and LeBron] and say that it is fantastic to have those natural tie-ins and it does make it a lot better.
“We’re fortunate that they are a very good partner and I think the more time they have spent with our teams, getting to know Liverpool as a city, you’re starting to see that come through in terms of product designs. As we were walking around we were talking about last season’s away kit being inspired by some of the retro kits we had and how successful that has been. I think that resonated with some of the fans because of what had gone before, so it is sort of past and present coming to life.”
With the collaboration with James now established there is set to be another push into growing the Liverpool brand globally.
The club currently has a physical retail presence in 10 countries and has plans to open at outlet in Dubai as well as in the US. PSG used their brand awareness created through Air Jordan and Nike to open up a flagship US store 12 months ago, taking residence in a location on the world famous Fifth Avenue in New York.
But the focus for the Reds begins at home, with Cox, who has been overseeing Liverpool’s merchandising growth for the last three years, chatting to the ECHO as part of the relaunch of the club’s flagship city centre store in Liverpool One.
An event that featured appearances from several stars of Matt Beard’s Liverpool Women’s squad was arranged to formally ‘re-open’ the store, which has been significantly revamped to coincide with the release of the LeBron Collection.
The famous ‘champions’ wall’ that can be seen outside the club’s Anfield store is now included as part of decoration of the city centre version, with some updated detail to include the two Women’s Super League trophies won in 2013 and 2014 as well as last year’s Women’s Championship success.
It’s all part of the club’s wider policy of growing the women’s side of their football operation at a time when the interest in the game has never been greater in England. There will be few brands better placed to grow the support-base of LFC Women than Nike, given the popularity of the women’s game across the other side of the Atlantic, where the company’s headquarters are situated in Oregon.
Back on Merseyside, however, Liverpool are going to great efforts to swell that fandom on their own soil.
“A city centre store is essential for a number of reasons,” Cox explained. “One is it provides a location for the fans to come. It can be really busy up at Anfield on a match-day, so having a store like this in the city centre, it gives people the option and in some way the convenience of not shopping at Anfield.
“So you can buy here, take your stuff back to the hotel or back home and it’s a really nice environment because I think it places Liverpool, as a lifestyle brand, alongside a lot of other UK and international branded retail businesses.
“It’s fairly unique. There are some other clubs that have a store similar to the one we have up at Anfield but to have something that is a similar size to offer the length and breadth of our merchandise is fairly unique in football.
“The design we have for this store will be replicated within our own stores over a period of time and we will take this to our international stores as well. Regardless of what your terminology is, our international stores become something of a church for our international fans. It is Anfield for some of them because they may not be lucky enough to get to Anfield on a match-day. So as much as we can incorporate the feeling of Liverpool as a city and also a club, it brings that to life for them and they are able to take that away and it’s a touch point for them really.”
Ahead of this evening’s Merseyside derby clash with Everton, Liverpool players will be heading to the game in the new LeBron collection, while some Reds players were also said to have visited the club shop to purchase some of the lines for themselves.
Under the ownership of FSG, having such things as a strong commercial operation correlates more strongly with the investment into the product on the pitch due to the club pursuing a break-even model, sustainable business model.
Cox added: “It is similar to everything we do as a club, commercially. The revenue that we are able to acquire through the fans and their loyalty goes into the football side and obviously into the infrastructure that the club has developed over the last several years.
“Whether that is the Anfield Road, the new Main Stand, the AXA Training Centre, it’s all part of our role really within the club, to support Jurgen and the team as well as the infrastructure’s development.”