LaVar Ball’s business plan for Big Baller is just as audacious as Nike’s Jordan strategy
Win or lose, it’s a plan of attack that could change shoe branding business
Controversial. Outlandish. Thief. Nonsensical. Combative.
All of these words have been used to describe LaVar Ball, CEO of the Big Baller Brand (BBB). The patriarch has made a name for himself by providing outrageous sound bites on countless networks ad nauseam. While his actions may seem impulsive, this is all a crucial part of an elaborate plan to revolutionize the sneaker industry.
“People don’t understand the movement,” Ball said to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “This is a power play to show everybody, ‘Yo, we don’t need you to make this s—.’ ”
When I hear this as a young African-American sports fan, I believe Ball is shedding the mentality that exists throughout the sports world that dissuades athletes from fully monetizing their talents. He is taking his son’s future into his own hands, and with all the exploitation that has become synonymous with athletics, are one’s own hands not the safest?
On the surface, Ball’s business strategy is a good one. The company is being endorsed by the potential No. 2 NBA draft pick in Lonzo Ball, his son who left UCLA after his freshman season. ESPN/ABC analyst Mark Jackson believes that LaVar Ball is on to something. When asked about Ball in a podcast interview, Jackson said, “College sports has been exploiting kids forever. I’ve always believed that, even when I was one of them, and it’s unfortunate.” Jackson, who played for St. John’s University and enjoyed a 17-year career in the NBA, went on to remark that Ball is putting unnecessary pressure on his son. When it comes to building capital, however, Jackson stated, “LaVar Ball is doing the right thing to try to turn this thing into a business.”
After all, his TV appearances provide free advertising, his sons provide the product and Ball provides the oversight.
Nike found the blueprint with Michael Jordan. The elder Ball intends to copy it with BBB using each of his three sons: Lonzo, 19; LiAngelo, 18; and LaMelo, 15.
BBB is an apparel company created by Ball that has the potential to shift the power in favor of the athlete. Rather than dealing with larger brands, Ball created BBB to keep in-house a larger percentage of the potential millions that Lonzo would earn with another sneaker company.
“As far as just creating the brand, I don’t think there’s any disadvantages,” CBS sportswriter Jamal Murphy said. “Even if it were to flop, it was learning experience and he still kept the power in his own hands.”
Since the $495 price was revealed for the ZO2 Primes, Lonzo Ball’s debut shoes, BBB has received a lot of flak. The high price, however, is a way to test the market and probably the result of having to pay 100 percent of production costs.
After failing to secure a deal with sneaker giants Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, the elder Ball decided to weather the market by his lonesome.
Risky? Definitely. As of 2015, 93 percent of the U.S. basketball shoe market was held by Nike, and Adidas and Under Armour made up 2.5 and 4 percent, respectively. Contrary to popular belief, however, this calculated risk has been 20 years in the making.
As the basketball sneaker industry has grown, companies are always looking for innovative ways to secure the best talent. Trying to develop brand loyalty early on has been the most successful course of action. This has resulted in athletes as young as 11 years old playing on AAU teams or in events sponsored by the top brands. The elder Ball was able to combat their monopoly by forming his own AAU team in 2013.
What the senior Ball is trying to accomplish is unprecedented, to say the least. No man has been bold enough to take on the sneaker companies. While some of his statements and promotional strategies are indeed questionable, what he has done is bigger than the sport of basketball. His willingness to ignore the rules and circumvent the entire “AAU to NBA” sneaker pipeline puts him in a class by himself.
Despite being spurned by the three dominant forces in the basketball sneaker world, Ball has refused to quit. Why? In his Chino Hills, California, home are three exceptional athletes who adhere to the blueprint that revolutionized the sneaker industry.
When Nike first signed Michael Jordan to a five-year, $2.5 million contract in 1984, critics condemned the company for investing so much into an unproven talent. They criticized the company again when the Air Jordan 1s debuted in 1985 at a hefty $65 a pair, the most expensive shoe at the time. The same “pricey” shoe then generated $130 million in revenue within a year, and the detractors vanished.
From Jordan and subsequent other high-profile signings, Nike has laid out a blueprint for financial success in the basketball sneaker industry. Ball is just replicating the same formula, to an extent.
The first rule is that perimeter players sell more shoes. Companies want players who have the ball in their hands the most — especially in clutch, career-defining moments — which almost always happens to be either a guard or small forward.
“We’re not building an NBA starting five,” Kris Stone, Under Armour’s senior director of sports marketing for pro basketball, said to Yahoo Sports. “We’re trying to build excitement around our footwear business as a company.”
Secondly, location always matters. In the sneaker world, visibility is key: The more people see a brand’s shoes, the more people buy them. Therefore, players who are drafted by teams in major cities, such as the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers or Chicago Bulls, are worth more.
Finally, no one buys a mediocre player’s shoes. Of the 449 players on an NBA roster at the start of last season, most have some sort of relationship with a sneaker company, whether it be via a merchandising or cash deal. The number of players who have their own signature shoe, however, is significantly smaller, totaling just 16.
Recently, Ball’s predictions have become less and less outlandish. He predicted that the Lakers would get the No. 2 pick and they did. He also predicted that the Lakers would select Lonzo with that pick, and with the draft less than a month away, it is hard to argue against him.
Armed with an unorthodox yet deadeye jump shot, a pass-first mentality and a lanky, 6-foot-6 frame, Lonzo has already garnered Magic Johnson comparisons. Still, with the pressure mounting, one question remains: Can Lonzo back it up on the court?
The eldest Ball brother’s demeanor is completely different from his father’s, yet he possesses a whole different sort of confidence. There is no doubt that he understands everything that is at stake:
“Who’s gonna want to wear a loser’s shoe?” Lonzo said to Shelburne. “I know I wouldn’t.”
C. Isaiah Smalls II is a Rhoden Fellow at Morehouse College, majoring in cinema, television and emerging media studies, with a minor in journalism and sports.