New Balance is best known for running shoes; it doesn't currently sell basketball sneakers. But the company has reportedly been trying for months to sign a high-profile NBA player like Leonard.
Competing with Nike, Adidas and Under Armour could be tough. Assaf Swissa, founder of the Boston marketing agency Superdigital, said New Balance may be targeting foreign consumers.
"The first thing that came to my mind was Asia," said Swissa, whose clients include New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman. "I think New Balance is still the No. 1 sneaker in Japan. I know they're high in China. And basketball has become the international sport."
Leonard plays for the Toronto Raptors and is the biggest basketball star in Canada. Though he has finished among the top three in MVP voting in back-to-back seasons, Leonard is not a pop-culture sensation in the way that LeBron James and Steph Curry are.
"You look at the internet's reaction to Kawhi signing with New Balance, and you see memes like, 'Kawhi is going to drop the Mall Runner 4' and 'Wait till Kawhi burns your favorite player, wearing your dad's New Balances,' " Swissa said. "The internet is calling out that New Balance is sort of the bland choice for the bland star.
"But New Balance actually has been doing a lot of cool things lately. They're not the sleepy brand they were in the '90s and early 2000s."