Marcus Rivero had spent 15 months turning a hobby into a lucrative side-hustle, retrofitting NFL players’ cleats with custom designs for a few hundred dollars a pair. But in November, when Nike issued a memo to its NFL endorsement roster threatening to end their contracts for wearing shoes obscuring the trademark “swoosh,” Rivero figured his client list would shrink.
But instead of scaring players straight, Nike’s warning ignited their interest in the fashion-forward cleats and the Miami resident who made them.
Rivero’s business tripled.
He now customizes shoes for more than 350 NFL players, including six who will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl, and soon hopes to make a full-time living creating shoes that stand out while still adhering to the NFL’s brand-friendly dress code.
“I want you to look at the shoe and see the Nike swoosh first and the artwork second,” says Rivero, a 31-year-old who runs a tire wholesale business. “I started with one guy on every team and I want to keep going. I want to change the way people see cleats.”
A self-taught artist, Rivero owes his business’ rapid growth to the spread of the sneakerhead subculture, in which customers give new athletic shoes makeovers, adding paint, patterns and colour co-ordinated laces.
The movement has its roots in fashion — nobody would ruin elephant print Jordan 8s by playing full-court basketball in them — but experts say sneakerhead style was destined to end up on the field eventually.
“It personalizes their cleats, and it separates them from everyone (else) wearing the same thing,” says Dalton Jackson, organizer of the Sole Exchange, a semi-annual convention for sneaker collectors. “Look at this guy, he has a gold pair. That guy has his baby’s face on his shoe. It’s a standout factor. You look much better when you’re not fitting in with the crowd.”
When Rivero tricked out his first pair of football cleats in August, 2013, he had concerns.
Before then he had designed sneakers for friends and a few clients around Miami, posting photos on Instagram to boost his exposure. But none of his customers put his shoes through the abuse football cleats receive, so when then-Miami Dolphin Nolan Carroll asked Rivero to spruce up his game shoes the designer worried the intricate paint job wouldn’t last four quarters.
Carroll played the entire pre-season in the cleats and they still looked sharp, so he shipped 10 more pairs to Rivero and had him paint designs on them. Shortly after Carroll showed the shoes to his teammates, Rivero’s phone started ringing. His roster of NFL customers went from one to 30.
“Even now when I write down the names (of clients), I can’t believe it,” Rivero says. “If I ever lose my phone somebody’s going to crank call everybody in the NFL. Everybody who is anybody is in my phone.”
During the NFL season Rivero customizes between six and 15 pairs of cleats per week, charging from $300 (U.S) to $1,100 depending on the work and materials involved.
Before the NFC championship game earlier this month, Seattle Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch sent Rivero a pair of shoes and simple instructions.
“Freak them however you want,” Lynch told him.
The result: cleats coated in 24k gold paint, soles trimmed with chrome.
They were an Instagram hit when Rivero posted a photo two days before the game. But they were a deal-breaker with the NFL, which monitors Rivero’s social media feeds to ensure his designs comply with the league’s dress code. The league barred Lynch from wearing the shoes.
Other institutions have embraced his designs. When adidas took over from Nike as apparel provider for the University of Miami’s sports teams, they contracted Rivero to design football cleats for famous alums. Nike hasn’t collaborated with Rivero, but he says the threatening memos have stopped now that his custom cleats are designed to make the Nike logo stand out.
Athletic apparel industry analyst Matt Powell says neither approach is wrong. He says brands often hire creative types like Rivero to consult on shoe design but points out that Nike, the NFL’s official apparel provider, pays to receive better visibility for its products.
“Players have shoe deals that prevent them from doing this, and it potentially could put them in jeopardy with the shoe companies,” says Powell, an analyst at the retail analytics firm the NPD Group. “Brands want to control how their product is presented. They spend a lot of money for that and when it isn’t under control it’s a tough deal for them.”
Powell notes that the market for football cleats is about one per cent of the size of the basketball shoe market, and that the market for NFL-calibre cleats is smaller still. So even as custom cleats create social media buzz, they don’t prompt a significant boost in sales for a large brand.
But they create a noticeable difference for Rivero, who also creates custom shoes for Major League Baseball players like Shane Victorino along with a growing list of NBA players. If his shoe business keeps growing, Rivero says he’ll be able to quit his day job before 2016.
“At the beginning it was fun, but now it’s becoming legitimate,” he says. “It requires so many hours. It’s hard when you work 8-to-5, then get home and work 5-to-2.”