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How LaVar Ball’s gamble on a signature shoe could pay off in a big way

Big Baller Brand has been criticized and ridiculed — but like LaVar Ball, it could be underestimated.

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2017 CIF State Boys Open Division Championship - Chino Hills v Bishop Montgomery Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

When LaVar Ball proclaimed that Big Baller Brand — the sports apparel company he has created — wanted a co-branded partnership with a major sneaker company, most sports fans dismissed him. The reports that every major sneaker company had shot the offer down were met mostly with glee, a form of confirmation bias that exists largely because of Ball’s own doing. His rise to sports social media infamy has been brisk, fueled by his seemingly endless flow of outlandish comments.

But the truth is that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss LaVar Ball. This isn’t the end of Big Baller Brand, or more importantly, LaVar and his sons’ influence in the sports apparel space. It’s only the beginning.

Ball has cleverly positioned himself in the center of the storm by capitalizing on a landscape in which the loudest voices earn the highest rewards. He’s appeared on First Take, been challenged to one-on-one with Charles Barkley, and caught the attention of the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James — for better or worse.

“The amount of attention being paid is unreal,” ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell said over the phone on Wednesday. “You can say all you want about ‘Stop talking about LaVar Ball, he’ll go away,’ but the people don’t want to stop hearing from him. They secretly love him. He’s an incredible speaker. He’s not a dumb man. As far as media icons go, LaVar Ball is there.”

And while critics and fans alike are quick to proclaim that LaVar is hurting his son’s upcoming chances with the NBA, that simply hasn’t proven true. Lonzo’s draft stock as a top-five pick in the 2017 NBA draft is as safe as ever, because at the bottom of all this hoopla is one simple fact: the Balls can, well, ball.

The beauty of Big Baller Brand is that it doesn’t end with Lonzo. Younger sons LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are standouts at Chino Hills High School, with the 15-year-old LaMelo forecasted to be perhaps the biggest basketball commodity of the three in the near future.

“LaVar Ball has been thinking about this a long time. I’ve seen how athletes come in, and even if they have their own brand, it’s very half-baked. Whether you like it or not, LaVar filed for Big Baller Brand [trademarks] last year. He’s really thought this out,” Rovell said.

All three sons, along with their father, wear Big Baller Brand apparel both on the court and off it. BBB’s website sells $60 T-shirts and $38 hats, placing the brand into a premium pricing tier within athletic apparel merchandise.

The public backlash to Ball’s proposed plan and historic rejection was to be expected. However, what gets lost in the rush to write off his plan as another stunt is how it actually could work.

“If I’m playing Devil’s advocate for LaVar Ball — what he’s doing makes sense,” a source within one of the Big Three’s basketball departments told me. “You get monetary value out of a contract, but if you’re wearing a sneaker as a rookie you’re not gonna get paid for the sales of that sneaker necessarily.”

This source is referring to a typical rookie endorsement deal with one of the major sneaker companies. While the player will receive a flat, contractual fee for wearing the brand, all sales brought in directly through to the player's popularity goes to the shoe company, not the player itself.

For years and years, players still went down this route. But LaVar Ball isn’t here to settle for that.

“A lot of these guys gave in to the endorsement model. It’s kind of easy to say ‘think for yourself, get your own deals, f--ck the establishment.’ It’s another thing to try to do it,” Rovell said. “Right now LaVar Ball is at the point where I’m not really sure he’s bluffing.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Ball family followed through on their promise and dropped a video featuring the new $495 shoe. The reveal takes the video one step further by cementing the go-at-it-alone mentality the Balls have put forth:

LaVar Ball has identified the status quo and made it clear that he believes Big Baller Brand to be above it. And who’s to say that’s not true? To put it frankly, LaVar has not one but potentially three giant basketball assets in his arsenal, and as a bonus, he’s found a way to make himself a commodity as well. Whether you like it or not, LaVar Ball has figured out how to play the game.

“That’s the thing — it’s all about leverage,” said the sneaker company source. “If Lonzo does land in a good market and he does well for himself, he has all the leverage he could probably ask for. He won’t be handcuffed to an initial deal, and he’ll have the [sneaker] market in his hands. He could end up with way more money next year [than he would if he signed with a sneaker giant this year].”

By not signing a traditional long-term deal now, Lonzo ensures that he has no strings attached if his stock goes up in the future.

“If Lonzo gets drafted by the Lakers and has an incredible campaign, do the companies go back and think, ‘maybe this isn’t that crazy?’” Rovell said.

Of course, this is all a big gamble. Ben Simmons — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft — signed a five-year, guaranteed $20 million contract with Nike last year. The Balls have taken a step back and decided that a few million guaranteed for the new few years is worth passing on for the possibility of making upwards of 10 times that.

But LaVar has bet on himself and his sons plenty of times before and delivered on lofty promises. Critics are quick to ignore LaVar’s profitable personal training business, or the life the Ball family breathed into an underperforming high school basketball program that couldn’t break .500 until the Ball family arrived.

If LaVar is right again, this has implications far beyond the Ball family’s paycheck. It could shift the entire business model for professional athlete brands.

The status quo works in major corporations’ favors when the masses insist that an incoming top draft pick with a valuable personal brand in tow should fall in line and know to never ask for too much. But if Ball secures his co-branding partnership and Lonzo delivers on the court, the message will be sent very clearly to future athletes: They may not have to settle for less.

Laugh at LaVar Ball all you want — but don’t underestimate him just yet.