PHOENIX – Sneakers are more than just shoes. Sneakers are swag, a fashion statement, a way to levitate, a collectible as rare as stamps or coins.
And they were on display in abundance when Sneaker Con recently arrived at the Phoenix Convention Center and people from all over, including big names, came out to buy, sell and trade shoes and other items at the event.
There were around 5,000 people, including vendors, at this year’s Phoenix event, which also featured live basketball for the first time since 2020. It was the second time Sneaker Con had visited in the Valley after the first scheduled event closed due to the pandemic.
“We flew here on a Thursday, the event was Saturday and we had to cancel it. So that was Phoenix 2020,” said Will Debord, general manager of Sneaker Con, who has been with the company since its 2009 debut in New York.
Since then, the event toured for 11 years before the Phoenix event was canceled. However, after an 18-month hiatus, the company resumed touring and did not stop. The tour visited Phoenix last year and “now we come back year after year to continue building and bringing the culture here to Phoenix,” Debord said.
Debord joined Sneaker Con full-time in 2011 after graduating from Syracuse. He wanted to be part of something that provided a “safe environment” to sell sneakers and apparel.
“What drives us is being able to provide a platform for kids to really learn business by doing something they love and being able to build their own career path,” Debord said.
Wherever it goes, Sneaker Con attracts buyers, sellers, traders and collectors of all kinds for the deals and the environment. Vendors lined the aisles of the convention center and sold rare shoes, merchandise and other products.
“I think the best thing about Sneaker Con is the people,” said Ray Ramirez, salesman and owner of the Royal Clothing Club. Ramirez has been to every Sneaker Con since 2011 and said the reason he keeps coming back is because the networking opportunity is second to none.
“In sales, it’s a numbers game. The numbers don’t lie, they have (thousands) of people at their events every time, and you only need that many to make your numbers,” he said.
A number of professional athletes showed up at Sneaker Con Phoenix, including Phoenix Mercury’s Sophie Cunningham, who complimented the entire atmosphere.
“I think it’s such a cool opportunity to have people show their personality,” she said. “It shows your creativity about what kicks you like, it gives me, as a professional athlete, (the ability) to show people what I like to wear off the pitch and on the pitch.”
Even though they already have a large following, Sneaker Con continues to look for ways to grow, and one step they took this time around was to reach out to the basketball community.
Hoops return to Sneaker Con
Sneaker Con launched Sneaker Con Hoops in 2016 and began hosting a YouTube influencer game at every Sneaker Con. By 2018, it had become very popular and competitive, and many popular street players and NBA 2K players who also played basketball started playing the events. However, it was closed in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Phoenix-based Stay Ballin’ TV brought live basketball back to Sneaker Con Phoenix for the first time since the pandemic and plans to tour with the band.
They hosted a variety of events in Phoenix with street ballers and influencers, some local, some from outside, including 1-on-1 matches, a 3-on-3 showdown, and a dunk contest.
“I used to watch basketball YouTubers (Sneaker Con) grow all the time,” said basketball influencer and Phoenix native Gio Wise. “And I’ve always wanted to play basketball at Sneaker Con and this year I was finally able to make that a possibility.”
Taking a break to watch the sneakers, fans lined up along the court railing to watch the hoops clash. The influencers also signed autographs and took photos with fans.
Wise, who had attended two other Sneaker Cons but had never played basketball there, was really excited to be one of the basketball players at the event.
“I can’t even put it into words. It’s just a real blessing,” said Wise, who captained one of the four teams that competed. “Honestly, it’s awesome. Being able to inspire people and motivate people to play basketball and create content.
Stay Ballin TV’s debut event at Sneaker Con was capped off with an incredible dunk from influencer Ian Murphy, who pounced on Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son and recent G-League Ignite signee. Suns forward Cam Johnson was a judge and gave the dunk a 10.
Basketball and sneaker culture
In addition to O’Neal and Johnson, several other professional basketball players, including NBA legend Gary Payton and his son Gary Payton II, also came to Sneaker Con Phoenix to expand their collection and experience the fun.
Suns forward Ish Wainwright was among the few NBA players to attend.
“(Basketball) is a sneaker culture,” Wainwright said. “On the pitch, off the pitch you will see kicks, no matter what you wear, no matter how you wear it, you will see kicks.”
Wainwright said being at Sneaker Con was like being a kid in “a candy store.” It was his third time at Sneaker Con, but first in Phoenix, and he said he loves coming to community events like these to make children’s day.
While Wainwright and other athletes came just to shop, Cunningham had a scheduled appearance to show off his shoes and meet and talk with fans. She said her first event blew her expectations away.
“If they’re going to invite me over and I can show off what I have in my closet, I’ll be back every time,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham also feels like sneakers and basketball go together.
“I think our game day outfits or our tunnel outfits (as) we call them are starting to look like a little fashion show,” she said. “It’s a pretty stylish event, you have to dress to impress and so no matter what you’re wearing, people are always looking at your feet and what (shoes) you’re wearing.”
People asked athletes for photos and autographs all day, but everyone seemed to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. One player many recognized was former Phoenix high school basketball star Kyree Walker, who is now part of the Washington Wizards’ G-League affiliate, Capital City Go-Go.
Walker came to the event looking to add to his Kobe collection, which are his favorite shoes for playing basketball. It was also his first time at a Sneaker Con, and he loved every moment of it.
“I would advise more NBA players, more high school kids, whatever you are, to come here and be at an event like this because it’s really cool,” Walker said. “Like people know who I am, and it’s really authentic…so I think it’s like one of those events where you come here, and you network with people, build relationships with people, and it’s is pretty cool so far.”
Walker is currently a sneaker free agent and can wear whatever he wants, a freedom he values because he feels like sneakers are more than just shoes.
“(Sneakers are) just another way to express yourself,” he said. “And having new kicks or having kicks that people have always wanted is kind of like a statement to other people. So it’s a cool thing to have.