Lonzo Ball is already one of the most interesting figures in the NBA, and he hasn’t even touched the ball yet.
Most of that is because of his father, Lavar Ball, and the Big Baller Brand he created. The brand represents independence and control for the Ball family. They’ve made unprecedented demands, like asking for co-branding deals from sports apparel giants and $495 for a rookie’s signature shoe despite Lonzo Ball not yet playing a significant minute on an NBA floor.
Lonzo Ball’s ZO2 signature shoe is probably the most polarizing part of the saga. Ball is the only rookie in this draft class who will have a signature shoe. Not only that, but he’ll be doing it with a completely independent brand. That could change in the future, but right now Big Baller Brand doesn’t have the backing of any major company.
The only other rookies to don a signature shoe in the league have been LeBron James (Nike) and John Wall (Reebok). And neither of those players were moving on an independent basis.
Think about that. Ball, a rookie, will be the first NBA athlete to don an independently branded shoe on the court since the days of Stephon Marbury rocking the Starbury. Marbury was an All-Star and one of the best talents in the league.
The same thing can be said for Shaquille O’Neal, who had his own independently branded sneaker and apparel line. He was an all-time great player and his shoes were available at a much lower cost.
Big Baller Brand is different. Just last week, Lavar Ball announced that pre-orders for the shoe will not be available after June 22. That’s the day of the NBA draft.
The pre-orders will stop, but the shoe still won’t be shipped out to customers until at least Nov. 24, which is way later than initially expected. And any purchases made by customers are non-refundable, per the Big Baller Brand website.
That has led many to question whether the shoe has actually been manufactured yet. Outside of an introductory photoshoot, the ZO2 has not been seen in public on foot. Lonzo Ball didn’t even wear the shoe at his first workout with the Los Angeles Lakers a few weeks ago.
During an interview with Complex Magazine’s Joe La Puma, Lavar Ball said he would not make his children wear the ZO2 sneaker when they play. Lonzo Ball is the brand’s ambassador, so it’d be odd if he didn’t wear the family’s signature shoe.
This is all bizarre. But could it actually work?
It could. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of sports management at George Washington University, said the Big Baller Brand’s strategy so far has been typical for a “start-up” apparel line.
“It’s a typical, textbook start-up,” Neirotti said. “They’re using pre-orders to test the market.”
Issuing pre-orders before the shoe’s big reveal is a way to see how many pairs of shoes they’ll need to actually produce before making a commitment to manufacturing.
Creating shoes can get costly. There are molds for each shoe size and different costs accompanying them. The price of production can get up to the thousands, Neirotti said. Cutting pre-orders long before their November ship date allows the brand to control how much they must invest.
During its first week of availability, fewer than 500 pairs of shoes were sold between the standard ZO2 model and the $995 ZO2 primes, according to the Los Angeles Times.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but between the price of the shoes and their pre-orders, the Ball family could potentially make up the cost of production. Or, they could be completely underestimating their market. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing.
“[Lavar Ball] is trying to come out on the high end,” Neirotti said. “He knows he’s going to get a small market share.”
Premium pricing is the name of the game, and it has plenty of boom-or-bust potential. If the price is too high, no one buys the shoe. If the price is too low, the company can’t turn a profit.
Judging from the public reaction and the lack of first-week sales, the price is too high for sneakers that aren’t that inspiring. Big Baller Brand must rely on ardent sneakerheads and Lonzo Ball’s biggest fans to make up costs. That may work. Or, it might blow up in their faces.
Either way, the Ball Family makes for an interesting case study. They’re going against the grain and pushing back against the establishment in an area where it’s difficult to do so.
“Nike and Adidas both have a huge marketing budget. Under Armour is a bit more cash strapped, but put it in perspective,” Neirotti said. “How does a new brand compete against that?”
Just last year, Nike spent $3.3 billion in marketing and Under Armour made $3.9 billion in sales. The Big Baller Brand couldn’t even sell 500 pairs of shoes in their first week release.
The triple B’s have a long way to go.
But what about LaVar Ball’s media tour?
Nike has a firm grip around the sports apparel world, with Adidas in its rear-view mirror. And despite its recent struggles through the 2016-17 NBA season, Under Armour looks poised to bounce back after another Stephen Curry championship and the release of its most stylish basketball shoe yet.
Although Big Baller Brand has become a name most recognize, the path hasn’t come without controversy. Ball was openly disrespectful to Kristine Leahy on FS1. He called out Kyrie Irving and brought up his late mother.
Those things go beyond gas-baggery — they’re just wrong. And wrong will do damage to any brand.
David Carter, the executive director of USC’s Sports Business institute, said Ball has validated the “there is no such thing as bad publicity” adage, but that same publicity could come back to bite his son.
“The free marketing and media coverage is certainly valuable and has contributed mightily to building the brand. But which brand?” Carter said. “What happens if Lonzo does not perform as promised? The media, NBA players, and so many others will return the wagging of the finger.”
The strategy of being louder than everyone else is a risky one with many potential outcomes. We’ve already seen the effects. Sixers special advisor Jerry Colangelo, whose team now owns the No. 1 pick in the draft, said it would be “challenging” to draft Lonzo with the people around him. He didn’t go into detail, but it’s clear he was talking about Lavar.
The Balls have begun to shift gears and soothe some of the naysayers created from Lavar’s bravado. This Father’s Day letter penned by Lonzo to Lavar at The Players’ Tribune and this self-deprecating Father’s Day Foot Locker commercial are both examples of an attempt to create more of a voice for Lonzo as a brand endorser.
No question, this is a boom-or-bust approach
Should this work, and Lonzo plays well in the shoes, things will be alright for the brand. Ball playing well in his shoes encourages people to buy them.
But before they can do that, Neirotti said the brand needs to be even more visible. People don’t just want gear anymore. They want to connect with the name behind it. They want a story to come with it. All Big Baller Brand has now is a name, a rookie athlete, and a shoe he doesn’t even wear yet.
“Having a star athlete is not a panacea,” she said. “There has to be a lot of good marketing behind him.”
Under Armour’s “Protect this House” slogan was successful in a way that simply having a name athlete wouldn’t have been. Their apparel was different — it was built with athlete comfort and body temperature in mind — and it was sold that way.
“They had a story to tell. They had a new type of fabric that served a purpose,” Neirotti said. “I don’t see any new technology [with Big Baller Brand]. What’s better about these shoes than someone else’s shoes? Other than the Ball name, which hasn’t been proven yet.”
If the ZO2 flops, there are outs for Big Baller Brand. They could try to partner with a Chinese company like Anta, Peak, or Li-Ning and find the right deal for Lonzo’s shoe and future signature ones for LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball.
But even that comes with a bit of danger. Partnering with another company could mean less creative control. And that means less prominence for the Big Baller Brand.
So will it work?
There are all sorts of reasons it won’t. The history of the sneaker business is not on the Ball family’s side. But we’re in a new world, where likes on Twitter and Instagram translate into success.
Very rarely do athletes market themselves in the way the Balls have, Carter said. Past examples like Serena and Venus Williams and Deion Sanders have worked, but dozens more have flamed out.
Carter said it isn’t a strategy he would recommend, but “just because I would not necessarily recommend it doesn’t mean it cannot be effective.”
Going against the grain has gotten them this far, so why stop now? If Big Baller Brand pans out, we could see athletes across different sports following their blueprint. That’s why so much is riding on LaVar’s mouth and Lonzo’s play.