Aside from a price tag only Gucci could appreciate, Lonzo Ball’s basketball shoe venture is something of a saintly enterprise.
The former UCLA point guard is the first player in the modern era to turn down significant endorsement dollars from major shoe companies – likely something in the range of $10 million over five years – to instead represent a startup.
The risks are apparent. The perks are quickly revealing themselves. For example, Big Baller Brand already delivered Ball something Nike has bestowed on just 21 basketball players in its 44 years of existence – a signature shoe.
Paul George, a seven-year NBA veteran in line for a $177 million contract offer from the Pacers this summer, earned his first signature shoe from Nike in January.
The Sports World is Forever Changed. Introducing Lonzo’s 1st Signature Shoe: The ZO2 Prime. pic.twitter.com/5JN1OLxlZS
— Big Baller Brand (@bigballerbrand) May 4, 2017
After one season at UCLA, Ball’s signature ZO2 Prime shoes were revealed last month.
“What they’re doing is unprecedented,” said USC professor of Sports, Business and Media Jeff Fellenzer. “I admire the vision and the dream. I just question the execution strategy. It feels like this instant gratification thing today we find in sports and even youth sports.”
Ball’s circumstance is so rare it limits capacity for comparison. Except in one obvious arena.
The outlandish cost of the ZO2 Prime basketball shoe, $495 for the lowest-priced option, can instantly be measured against its competition in basketball footwear.
LeBron James’ most expensive signature shoe retails for $175, Kevin Durant’s for $190. The only shoe not on the secondary market approaching the ZO2 price tag is the $400 Air Jordan 5 Retro Premium. Part of a re-released series of Jordan Brand sneakers, it is the company’s only footwear priced above $190, leaving the ZO2 in a class by itself.
“It is so far beyond the competition it makes me wonder what the thinking really is for immediately pricing it way beyond what would be considered an upscale shoe price,” Fellenzer said. “Jordan Brand built up a certain excellence in the minds of the consumer and has stood the test of time as a superior product. When you come out of the gates like this, how do you build the brand from here?”
Wherever Big Baller Brand is headed, it will almost certainly continue to blaze a trail as an independent small business unattached to a larger entity.
LaVar Ball’s asking price for his company and his three sons’ endorsement has tripled since he told USA Today in March he was seeking $1 billion. He professed to FS1’s Colin Cowherd last week it has risen to $3 billion since the Lakers landed the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, creating the distinct possibility of Lonzo Ball landing in the L.A. market with one of the league’s most iconic franchises.
Estimating his company’s worth at 10 figures wasn’t LaVar Ball’s only unrealistic expectation. Meetings with Nike, Adidas and Under Armour that failed to produce a deal shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The plan to partner Big Baller Brand with an established company was always a philosophical longshot.
“Generally you don’t want to muddy your brand with another brand,” said Daniel Durbin, a USC professor and director of the university’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society. “The Adidas Big Baller Brand? It looks like it’s beholden to another brand made up by one person. I find it a stretch in the short term. The big shoe companies, they don’t need Big Baller Brand because they’ve got LeBron and all these established stars to bank on.”
As far as Big Baller Brand is concerned, it’s difficult to tell who the company’s star is, Lonzo or LaVar.
Lonzo is a soft-spoken point guard who led the NCAA in assists last season, gaining fame for his unselfish style. His brash father is setting a new standard for sports parenting, seemingly surpassing Earl Woods and Richard Williams with outlandish expectations and an aggressive approach. Combined with unceasing appearances in the national media admittedly fueled by his desire to promote his sons and Big Baller Brand, it is increasingly difficult to find a sports parent who compares to LaVar Ball.
The most obvious difference for the Big Baller Brand founder and CEO is that his vested interest isn’t just in his sons’ success. It’s a family company, by extension.
“It has been proven that in politics you can yell and scream and build a brand that will win you the office of the President of the United States,” Durbin said. “In sports, you generally have to succeed on the court. LaVar Ball has helped raise awareness for his son, but if he becomes roadkill on the side of the road in the NBA, most of what LaVar has done essentially becomes meaningless.”
Thus far, Lonzo is the only family member who passed up millions of dollars to support Big Baller Brand’s initiative.
Plenty of players fresh out of college aren’t in a situation to do anything but perpetuate the model that helped create the major shoe companies’ reign. Ball is the first to refuse to do so.
Lonzo Ball has already passed on the traditional endorsement money and Big Baller Brand is speeding down a path banking on his success.
“Most student-athletes, when they’re getting out of college and are able to command endorsement dollars like Lonzo was offered, these kids are going to jump on that for various reasons,” said Dr. Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “There’s part of me that respects the effort and initiative to do something different. But if we think back over the last 10, 15 years in the NBA draft, how many have been the kind of guys that have been game changers from an image perspective? Obviously LeBron. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose for a while, and (Russell) Westbrook has become more attractive in last couple years, but there’s not a lot of them. Do I really believe that strongly my son is going to be the next coming?”
LaVar Ball’s vision only begins with Lonzo. Middle child LiAngelo Ball will begin his college basketball career at UCLA in the fall. Youngest son LaMelo has committed to play at UCLA beginning in 2019.
Big Baller Brand is only in its infancy.
“You won’t know fully until LaMelo gets to the league,” Fellenzer said, “how the brand will take shape overall.”