Rich Paul and New Balance partner for launch of new sportswear brand Klutch Athletics — Andscape
With over a century in business, New Balance is known for its domestic manufacturing and its simple gray suede running shoes. In a shift from that tradition, the company is partnering with sports agent Rich Paul, the Klutch Sports Group CEO, to launch Klutch Athletics, manufactured and designed with New Balance, this spring.
“This is not a one-off collaboration thing,” said Paul. “This is an actual, Black-owned sportswear brand.”
Paul said that the new Klutch Athletics company is a separate entity from Klutch Sports Group with a new logo and an emphasis on performance training apparel.
New Balance has long made sport-specific footwear and apparel for basketball, soccer, running, and other activities. Still, it’s never launched a complete collection of training apparel for a multi-sport athlete.
“We saw an opportunity to land at the intersection of sport, functionality, and style,” Paul said.
“From a performance training perspective, New Balance does not necessarily have a pure performance training collection,” said Chris Davis, son of New Balance owner Jim Davis and the company’s chief marketing officer and senior vice president of merchandising. “The Klutch Athletics by New Balance collection will be our focus on performance training apparel. We both believe that the performance training category is ripe for disruption. It arguably hasn’t evolved in two decades.”
The connection between Klutch Sports and New Balance began in 2018, when Darius Bazley, then an 18-year-old top basketball prospect, was looking to decommit from his scholarship to Syracuse University and potentially sign with the NBA G League, before entering the NBA draft in 2019.
With Paul as his agent, Bazley and his mother met with New Balance in Boston and created a first-of-its-kind hybrid shoe deal under the guise of an internship. Bazley would become the first basketball player to sign with New Balance in more than a decade as it looked to reenter the performance sneaker market.
Bazley trained at local gyms to prepare for the NBA draft while helping the company develop products. He also integrated himself into the marketing team and worked on social media campaigns.
“We wanted to enter the basketball landscape in a more disruptive way and unique manner,” recalled Davis.
While the internship was a starting point for both Bazley and New Balance in basketball, it also set the foundation for the relationship with Klutch Sports and Paul.
While New Balance has just seven NBA players on its basketball roster, four of them are aligned with Klutch Sports. After Bazley, rising guards and scoring wings Dejounte Murray, Zach LaVine, and Tyrese Maxey signed with the company.
During the league’s 2020 All-Star Weekend in Chicago, Paul floated the idea of a larger-scale partnership with New Balance to Davis. The two sides landed on first creating a Rich Paul-branded capsule collection.
Headlined by a white and navy colorway of New Balance’s popular 550 lifestyle sneaker, there were matching tracksuits and apparel featuring “Rich Paul” in cursive atop each item.
“The response that it got from the culture and people globally, selling out of 10,000 pairs in 45 minutes, was crazy,” Paul said of the late 2021 launch.
Rather than launch an apparel offshoot, Paul zeroed in on forming a new entity, and Klutch Athletics by New Balance was born. He is the majority owner, with New Balance as a partner in the business venture.
“For them to have the foresight and be willing to support the idea, there was no doubt that this is the right partner,” said Paul. “They have the manufacturing and distribution, and they have the ability to make this a global brand at the snap of a finger.”
Privately held since owner and chairman Jim Davis bought the company in 1972, New Balance now has around $5 billion in annual revenue.
“We wanted to think about how we could evolve and disrupt the sports that we’re in,” said Chris Davis. “We’re both challenger brands in the world of sport. We both have a fearlessly independent mindset. That’s a dangerously good combination.”
Specifically, Davis dubs it a “co-authored” approach, as dedicated teams at Klutch Athletics and New Balance work in tandem.
“We’re obviously a large, multibillion-dollar organization, but at the core of our growth is a large, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Davis. “That’s something that Rich and his team identified with immediately.”
The initial rollout of Klutch Athletics products includes jackets, compression tops, a training vest, sports bras, and a variety of shorts. The items are designed to be unisex, with the ability to mix, match, and layer pieces. The clothing is scheduled to hit stores on April 27 and will be priced in the $40-$120 range.
Inspired by New Balance’s recognizable suede “dad shoes,” all of the apparel takes on a varying shade of gray, from dark tones of deep anthracite to the lightest hues of heather.
“When you think about the co-branding, you’ll see a green New Balance tag, which you’ve never seen before,” said Paul. “That’s only on Klutch Athletics, and it’s a play on community and the field of play. When you think about being a kid, being out in the backyard or the front yard, and finding that first patch of grass.”
Paul played football and basketball growing up in the Cleveland area and can immediately pinpoint the starting points of his athletic dreams.
“For me, it was [imagining] the Browns’ stadium and Glenville High School, knowing that some of the biggest high school football games [in Ohio] were played there for the state championship,” he said. “As a kid growing up, that’s what you dreamt of.”
The Klutch Athletics team developed a new “K” icon featured across the front of most apparel items. David Creech, the chief design officer of Klutch Athletics and a former Nike executive, led the logo design process.
“Every design element of Klutch Athletics apparel has a story, from the branding to the color palette to the product details,” said Creech. “Everything has a purpose.”
In leadership roles at the Swoosh for more than 15 years, he oversaw brand design for some of the company’s biggest initiatives, including the creation of branding assets for golfer Tiger Woods, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, and NBA player LeBron James. Creech was eventually named vice president of design at Jordan Brand before leaving to launch the Adopt agency with Paul and others.
“He’s obviously an industry-best talent,” said Davis. “His coming to Adopt and Klutch Athletics made us confident that they were investing in industry-best talent and serious about this initiative.”
Paul said there would be a “distinct difference” between Klutch Athletics, the brand, and the logos and fonts used in the Klutch Sports Group. He has also hired a team of 14 to work on the Klutch Athletics business.
“There’s nobody at Klutch Sports that works at Klutch Athletics,” Paul said. “Totally separate teams.”
As the idea behind Klutch Athletics began taking shape in 2021, lawmakers passed groundbreaking name, image, and likeness guidelines that went into effect in July that year, allowing amateur athletes to sign brand deals and be compensated.
Historically, New Balance hasn’t signed many schoolwide deals with colleges. The new NIL era allows an entry point for brand partnerships with younger athletes, who can showcase and highlight brands on their social media channels.
“It was pivotal and coincidental,” Davis said with a laugh.
Paul estimates that around 80% of the athletes Klutch Athletics signs will be NIL deals. This spring, the first effort will be geared to signing girls and boys basketball players.
“It’s going to stay partnerships over sponsorships, and a fewer, bigger, better approach,” Davis specified. “It will be athlete-focused and not about quantity. It’ll be about quality. Every individual athlete will be handpicked and totally immersed into the brand.”
Of course, the natural question is whether Klutch Athletics will only sign players represented by Klutch Sports Group. Not so, said Paul.
“Contrary to belief, it don’t matter what agency you’re with,” he said. “Rich Paul and Klutch Athletics have an open checkbook for talent, no matter what agency you’re with.”
As more prep phenoms align with sports agencies for NIL representation during high school, top players are landing brand deals before stepping onto a college campus.
“We’re going to be open-minded with all athletes. I know most agencies think I’m competing with them, but I’m really not,” continued Paul. “I’m focused on building something in which we’ll have a budget for their clients as well. Hopefully, there are some Klutch Sports Group athletes that we target. But there will also be some Excel, some Priority, some Wasserman, and some CAA athletes that we target – if their representation is open-minded enough to do business the right way.”
As the athlete roster of Klutch Athletics begins to develop, Davis sees the strategy still following the company’s “partnership over sponsorship” approach.
“At New Balance, our goal is to be the most boutique sports marketing brand in the world,” he said. “We’re never trying to be the biggest. We’re always trying to be the best.”
While the product assortment will be available at NewBalance.com and retail partners, there will be an emphasis and regional strategy on where Klutch Athletics shows up most.
“We’ll be focused on cities that don’t normally receive a lot of investment from a marketing or philanthropic standpoint,” said Davis. “Cities like Cleveland, where Rich is from.”
“We want to focus on the middle of America,” Paul said. “Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Atlanta, Kansas City, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Mobile, Alabama. New York and LA get [support] anyway. I think there’s an opportunity to be in the community, be accessible and be as affordable as we possibly can. I want to flip that and focus on those cities to start.”
Paul sees Klutch Athletics as helping the next generation of athletes and those who’ve aspired to carve out their unique path in the business of sports, like him.
“I was a kid that didn’t make it. I dreamt of making it to the NFL or the NBA, but I didn’t, and now I sit in a different seat,” he said. “You can always elevate yourself and dream of a higher level. You just might never know what part of the business you’ll be in, but you can get there. It starts with that original dream, of what and who you can be.”
Three years after that first conversation in Chicago – a “pie in the sky” chat, as he described it — Davis now sees Klutch Athletics as a key component of the New Balance company.
“We did know that the partnership was going to materialize in a way that was bigger than the sports and the athletes that we were talking about,” said Davis. “I think the concept is more powerful and defined than we ever thought it could be and it has tremendous upside going forward.”
With his CEO title at Klutch Sports Group representing just “one hat that I wear,” Paul hopes the launch of Klutch Athletics can place him in a different tier of the athletic industry’s power players.
“I don’t get excited about much,” said Paul. “I’ve done a lot of deals in my life, and usually, it’s on to the next one. But this one excites me, and the partnership excites me. I think this is going to be one of the most impactful things I’ve ever done.”