That would be a significant bump from James’s recent releases, which have not been embraced by collectors. The LeBron 13, released in September 2015, has been especially disappointing to hard-core sneaker enthusiasts, with some deadstock models — unworn shoes in the original box and packaging — selling for less than the original $200 retail price on secondary markets.
Whether the special release will help James close the gap with Jordan remains to be seen. Air Jordans still dominate the resale market and account for about half of such transactions, according to StockX, thanks to a steady stream of retro releases of models introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Shortly after the introduction of LeBron 13, Nike signed James to a lifetime deal, hoping to replicate the enduring popularity of Jordan’s sneakers even after his retirement.
When Nike released black and red Air Jordan 1 high-tops in September with the original Nike Air logo on the tongue — unlike the recent models that carry Jordan’s Jumpman logo — the sneakers sold out in a matter of minutes and were almost immediately selling for more than double the $160 retail price in the secondary market.
James and Nike are hoping to tap into a similar nostalgia with the reintroduction of James’s rookie-year sneaker, the Air Zoom Generation, the first sneakers Nike made for James. James is one of the few players, including Jordan, to get a retro release of his own shoe line while he is still playing.
“There is more inherent demand for LeBron’s retro shoe than any of his shoes in the last three years,” Luber said.
Neil Schwartz, vice president at SportsOneSource, a market research firm for athletic footwear and apparel, said LeBron was the most popular basketball shoe frontman among active players, ahead of Kevin Durant (Nike), James Harden (Adidas) and Stephen Curry (Under Armour). But James is nowhere near being the king of basketball shoes.
“LeBron is not approaching Jordan in popularity,” Schwartz said. “He’s not even close.”
Luber said Nike’s willingness to release a high-profile shoe like the new LeBron sneakers on a secondary marketplace underlined the increasingly important role played by resellers in stoking demand for big-ticket sneakers.
“If you asked someone three years ago, they would have said this would never happen,” said Luber, who founded StockX with the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. “Nike is finally acknowledging the secondary market.”
StockX estimates that resellers generate $1.5 billion worth of sales in the United States alone. Much of that underground economy is driven by enthusiasts, known as sneakerheads, who camp out overnight or create fast-bidding software programs to snap up new releases of rare models from big sneaker brands. Because many of those shoes are sold in limited quantities, many sneakerheads quickly resell those sneakers on eBay or reseller sites for a tidy profit.
The shoe brands maintain a complicated relationship with resellers, who are often the most enthusiastic and well-informed customers. On one hand, long lines of sneakerheads waiting for new shoes are a marketing boon. But savvy resellers game the system for maximum profit, making it difficult for ordinary consumers to buy the hottest shoes without paying a large premium.
But James’s shoes have not reached the status of the Air Jordans. Jason Hart, a part-time actor who calls himself a “dilettante sneaker reseller,” said James’s recent shoes had almost no value in the resale market because collectors do not like the shoes’ appearance. Hart said he had spent about $75,000 in 2016 on 300 pairs of shoes and had not bought a single pair of LeBron sneakers. By comparison, half of his purchases were Jordan sneakers.
“LeBron is a little off the map,” he said. “Nike is going to have to go back and cultivate that again.”
Bidding for the sneakers opened Friday night and closes on Thursday. The top 23 bids for each shoe will win, and a portion of the proceeds will go to the Cavaliers Youth Foundation. Nike said the LeBron 14s would become widely available at retail later this month for $175, while Air Zoom Generations go on sale on Jan. 25 for $175.