The sound of the final buzzer of the NCAA regular season hadn't stopped ringing in everyone's ears before UCLA's Lonzo Ball said what basketball fans already knew: On March 13, the 19-year-old point guard announced he would forgo his sophomore season and declare for the NBA draft. The one-and-done prospect was fulfilling one-third of the plan prophesied by his father, LaVar Ball, who promised each of his three talented sons would play college ball for one season before they cashing in on their skills at the pro level. But making it to the league is just the beginning of the process.
Ball’s intentions for his sons extend beyond the court. In his mind, those plans include massive endorsements — namely a sneaker deal that includes the complete trio of siblings, for one astronomical sum. "A billion dollars, it has to be there," Ball told USA Today in a late March interview. "That's our number, a billion, straight out of the gate. And you don't even have to give it to me all up front. Give us $100 million a year."
All the major footwear companies are listening to the Ball patriarch’s words, and Nike co-founder Phil Knight himself admitted that the company has “an interest” in Lonzo. Knight also noted that LaVar Ball’s current price tag was “a little steep.” But it all leads to the question of just how much we should expect one of the major sneaker companies to shell out for Lonzo. Not only is he going to be a first-round pick in the draft, but securing his services could also potentially mean locking in his brothers LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo,15, both high schoolers who also are committed to UCLA.
Most industry figures are cautious to speculate on what the potential value for Lonzo’s inevitable sneaker endorsement could possibly be. Various reps from Nike, Jordan, and Adidas all declined to speak on record for this article.One source at a sneaker company who asked to remain anonymous said that Lonzo’s deal could add up to “maybe millions but never a billion.” The source did admit that any company lucky enough to land the first of the three Ball brothers could be setting themselves up lovely for the future.
Industry analysts unattached to sneaker brands were willing to guesstimate on the record, however. “I would speculate that an initial deal of $25-30 million over five years would be reasonable,” says Edwin Kye, a contributor at investment website Seeking Alpha, that gives information on the stock market.“This would maintain a fine line between placing a premium on the popularity of the family and recognizing that Lonzo’s future value to a brand is heavily dependent on how well he’ll do in the NBA, which is a big unknown and one reason why a lifetime deal at this time is highly unlikely.”
His name may be more heavily hyped, but Ball will probably find himself in the same general range as a few of the top picks from the 2016 draft class. “Ben Simmons is making $4 million per year from his deal with Nike, whereas Brandon Ingram’s deal with Adidas pays him $2 million per year,” Kye says.
Look for Ball to score similar offers no matter which brand he signs with, along with a slight boost to account for the attention the family has created for itself. That increase, however, won’t make for the extra tens of millions dollars Mr. Ball is looking for his sons. Any contract would likely be constructed with a heavy focus on incentives based on Ball’s actual success on the court and a long list of intangibles.
Having to predict the future is always one of the trickiest parts in determining an athlete’s value for companies. The eldest Ball sibling has the court vision and an uncanny knack for dazzling, pinpoint passes akin to NBA great Jason Kidd. The fact that his two younger brothers have been scoring monsters in high school only adds to the infamy their last name carries. Add in their dad's unabashed approach to praising his sons to any media outlet willing to listen — and there have been many — only amplifies the platform and power the Ball family wields.
“The reason we’re talking about him is he’s captured everyone’s imagination,” says Gavin Ivester, a former Global Creative Director for Nike Footwear Design and former Senior Vice President and General Manager for PUMA Footwear Division. “But like every player, there’s no guarantee he’ll thrive in the NBA.”
In theory, the $25-30 million estimate keeps the risks low for any company who decides to ink a deal for Lonzo Ball. But unpredictable factors are part of the reason why it’s tough to speculate exactly how much Ball could command from a footwear brand. To begin with, one of the first concerns would be which team winds up drafting him. “The right deal can be a mix of marketing and media exposure, talent investment [footwear designers] and, of course, cash,” Ivester says. “The smart deal goes for the money but keeps it in context with the whole package. A deal that helps position the player as an all-media star gets him paid many other ways outside the sneaker deal.”
Should he wind up in a major media market like Los Angeles or New York, his value to potential suitors goes up. Conversely, the number goes down if a smaller market team like Utah or Milwaukee calls his name on draft night. Playing on a squad that has fewer televised games or no presence in the NBA playoffs means less exposure for the player and the company’s products, which in turn means a bigger spend to make him a household name.
No matter how hyped he is at the moment, Lonzo Ball and his business team will have to put in the work and exercise patience and commitment in order to make his dad’s billion-dollar dream materialize. “Every player in the NBA is talented, some more than others,” Ivester says. “But selling sneakers doesn’t happen from on-court talent alone. Legends aren’t built in one season; they’re built after many].”
In order to begin establishing their legacy, LaVar, Lonzo, and the other Ball siblings may have to start looking at the long-term instead of banking on making a headline-grabbing deal that would rewrite endorsement history.