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July 31, 2004

Vaccaro Reinvents Himself As Reebok Ambassador

FROM THE GODFATHER OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL FOOTWEAR comes a state-of-the-industry report on who’s hot, who’s not and who’s wearing what.

Few figures in college basketball world approach the status and influence exerted by 64 year old journeyman extraordinaire Sonny Vaccaro. A passionate, touchy-feely fellow, Vaccaro spent many years with Nike, and later, Adidas, as the de facto scout of grass roots high school basketball.

Operating in the netherworld of young players largely off limits to college coaches, Vaccaro’s status as independent marketing businessman gave him nearly unfettered access to impressionable hoops youngsters and their parents. It was a void that the inimitable Vaccaro filled perfectly.

This is a man—warning: cliché coming—whose word is his rep. When Adidas left Vaccaro out to dry in the LeBron James negotiations last year, Vaccaro moved on to Reebok. This new gig has all the makings of a successful marriage: Reebok is conspicuously underdeveloped at the grass roots level, there’s plenty of funding to be had, and Vaccaro possesses all the vigor and zest of a much younger man.

The stakes are high: basketball footwear alone is a $2.5 billion market. Plus trends that start with footwear spread to other wearables, plus onward out to Italy, Lithuania, Angola and all the hundreds of emerging hoops havens worldwide.

Further, with basketball stars developing at earlier and earlier ages, opportunistic grass roots specialists like Vaccaro and his ilk have taken to trolling the shallow waters of junior high schools.

Critics complain that footwear companies are taking advantage of mere babes. But Vaccaro cries foul. He says there’s a double standard that stacks opinion unfairly against basketball. Other sports—tennis, baseball and golf among them—have attracted plenty of tender teens to their ranks, but they attract nowhere near the criticism leveled at basketball.

Says Vaccaro, "Why did we applaud the young Russian girl (Maria Sharapova) who won Wimbledon at 17 years old and had been training for four years? Why do we discriminate against this particular sport and these particular kids? In the 35 years since Moses Malone, I think there have been 32 kids out of high school. Do you know how many high school kids were drafted by major league baseball? Hundreds!”

The scope of the process has expanded dramatically. Nike, Adidas and Reebok now sponsor a combined 280 high school teams and 180 summer league teams. And the three companies sponsor tournaments involving over 450 teams and 5000 players.

All this for maybe 50 or 60 NBA rookie slots each year and a few dozen European opportunities.

More later . . . .

(this 431 word excerpt—with attendant commentary—has been extracted from two articles totaling 5800 words in the Indianapolis Star of 8-1-04)