Matthew Keegan
Feb 13, 2020

How sports luxury became an inevitable evolution

As luxury and sports brands increasingly team up, we look at how luxury is losing its barriers and being redefined by new ideals, particularly those of younger and Asian consumers.

How sports luxury became an inevitable evolution

As collaborations go, the recent multiyear partnership between luxury brand Louis Vuitton and the National Basketball Association (NBA) may, at first, have been hard to predict. After all, basketball and a French fashion house seem worlds apart. But in a first-of-its-kind partnership with a North American sports league, Louis Vuitton has designed a bespoke steamer trunk that will be used as the official carrying case for the NBA’s championship trophy.

This is not as unusual as it first seems. In fact, it's more of a running theme. Louis Vuitton has also designed trophy cases for the Rugby World Cup, FIFA World Cup, and most recently for the League of Legends World Championship 2019, the Summoner's Cup, Louis Vuitton's first esport trophy case.

"NBA players are global fashion provocateurs. The pre-game tunnel walk is the NBA’s equivalent of the runway. The intersection of sport and luxury combines fandom and fashion in a way that makes this partnership natural," says Michael Patent, founder of Culture Group, a pan-Asian sports and entertainment agency. "We’ll see more collaboration between the NBA and luxury brands—both formally in the form of league partnerships as well as athlete direct relationships."

"The pre-game tunnel walk is the NBA’s equivalent of the runway." Fans cheer as Nene Hilario #42 of the Houston Rockets runs out of the tunnel before the game against the Toronto Raptors at Toyota Center on January 25, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Source: Getty Images

For luxury experts, the fact that sports and luxury brands are increasingly teaming up makes perfect sense. "Sports is something that inspires fans in ways that very few other things do," says Lily Lu, digital director, Reuter Communications, a luxury marketing agency based in Shanghai. "Even if their team loses, fans have an innate love for the team and the sport as a whole. This means that luxury brands can tap into a highly loyal and emotional state of consumer mindset."

Liz Flora, editor of Asia Pacific research at L2 Inc., says that the Asian influence, in particular the China market, is likely to have had a significant influence on the Louis Vuitton / NBA partnership as it’s one of the world’s largest markets for both luxury brands and the NBA.

"The importance of the China market has been propelling Louis Vuitton into innovative new marketing categories like this and the League of Legends partnership," says Flora. "Louis Vuitton is branching out into a sport that may have previously been considered a more 'mass-market' category appropriate for activewear brands, but it has recognised there is also a significant opportunity to reach an audience of luxury consumers in both the US and China."

And it looks as though collaborations between luxury brands and sports are set to continue, particularly in Asia. "We saw in our recent Insight Report, Luxury Chinese Consumers in a New Decade, that luxury is losing its barriers and being redefined by new ideals, particularly those of younger and Asian consumers," says Lu. "Luxury being something only expensive or class-based is a western ideal from over two decades ago."

M.A.C. lipstick collaboration with Honor of Kings

Esports, for which China is home to more than half of the world's audience, is another huge category that has already seen collaborations such as Louis Vuitton designing the World Championship trophy case for the hugely popular video game League of Legends, and M.A.C’s lipstick collections released in collaboration with King of Glory 王者荣耀 and Honor of Kings sold out. Sports also has ties to streetwear, another area that may seem unexpected yet garners huge popularity in China, with brands such as Fendi and Burberry finding great success.

Notably, in the past year alone, fashion house Prada has teamed up with Adidas on a new collection of sneakers called Superstar. Meanwhile, luxury brand Balmain launched a collaboration with athletics sportswear company Puma that comprises two limited edition capsule collections, including items such as a US$8,000 sequined kimono and a US$250 pair of shorts. Dior has also partnered with Nike to create a pair of sneakers in the form of the Dior x Air Jordan 1 High OG.

Balmain x Puma collaboration

"Luxury brands are skewing younger and taking their cues and product drop strategies from streetwear brands," says Patent. "Working with athletes and sports properties allows luxury brands to tap into an affinity driven audience while pairing two tradition driven institutions in a new manner."

Elisa Harca co-founder and Asia CEO of Red Ant, a Chinese digital and social media marketing agency, says that luxury / sports partnerships are a very smart strategy as all brands are seeking to reach a younger audience, especially a Gen Z audience. "Sporting entertainment often produces the world’s biggest stars—as big or even bigger than movie stars, so it makes total sense for luxury brands to connect," says Harca.

"The concept of 'new luxury' whereby youth and street culture directly impacts the brands strategies means that sports are at the heart of it," continues Harca. "The sports world is the new luxury itself, with all eyes on the glamour of the events as well as the growing trends in lifestyle and health and wellbeing."

Understanding that appeal, Mark Tatum, the NBA’s deputy commissioner, told WWD: "I think that’s why some of these luxury brands are looking to players, influencers, because they are the ones setting the trends and setting the culture, if you will, and these fashion brands are very much a part of that culture,” says Tatum. “Our players are often seen in Louis Vuitton merchandise.”

For those reasons, it seems the worlds of luxury, sports and fashion are becoming increasingly intertwined, and it is big business. According to Global Inc., Research and Markets, the sports and fitness fashion market is predicted to reach US$231.7 billion by 2024.

"We’ve been seeing both activewear and luxury brands make inroads into each other’s territory as activewear brands have been staging runway shows at the world’s top fashion weeks," says Flora. "We’ve also seen activewear brands increasingly taking after luxury labels with celebrity-driven fashion marketing instead of performance marketing in China."

Flora cites the example of Adidas, which earned 34% of total Weibo engagement among activewear brands in L2's Activewear China 2020 report. This was thanks in large part to fashion-driven marketing featuring celebrities including the TFBoys idol group and actress Dilraba Dilmurat, who also work with luxury brands.

However, the luxury/sports trend is not all just fashion focused. For quite some time, it has been common for luxury brands to sponsor certain sports events. Notably, Swiss luxury watchmaker Longines has been a long term supporter of the sports industry, in particular the equestrian world. It has sponsored the Longines Masters in Hong Kong for seven years. Sadly, the event has just been cancelled due to the coronavirus, but Longines is very much at the forefront of sport and luxury. Hermes is also very active in the horse riding space, as is Rolex. In addition, Rolex has sponsored different sports, including the Tennis Masters in Shanghai and golf contests in Asia.

Louis Vuitton-designed case for the NBA's Larry O'Brien trophy

For the most recent example of Louis Vuitton partnering with the NBA, the bespoke case will house and display The Larry O’Brien Trophy that is presented annually in June to the NBA team that wins the finals. “The tradition, heritage and identity of Louis Vuitton create a natural synergy with the NBA, and this partnership provides a unique and befitting way to showcase our championship trophy to our fans around the world," said NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum. As part of the expansive partnership with the NBA, Louis Vuitton will also create an annual limited-edition capsule collection, with details to be announced at a later date.

"Louis Vuitton's relationship with the NBA centres around function and fashion," says Patent. "This is a terrific, functional way to combine two heritage items in a contemporary environment. It's a great example of sport and luxury coming together and we’re definitely likely to see more as luxury brands continue to see the benefit of evolving their brands."

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