Lonzo Ball’s Las Vegas Summer League debut was been one of the top storylines of the NBA offseason. As the number two pick of the 2017 draft, there’s no surprise Ball’s play would be scrutinized. However, it’s another aspect of what he’s doing on the court that’s received heavy attention: wearing flagship sneakers from other brands. Now his shoe selection makes us wonder whether Big Baller Brand is a budding sneaker brand or more of a marketing machine for Lonzo Ball as he prepares for his rookie season.
Ball kickstarted league play by wearing the Z02, the $495 model produced by Big Baller Brand, in his Los Angeles Lakers debut. What really fired up the conversation were the shoes he wore in subsequent games, taking the court in the Nike Kobe A.D., James Harden’s signature Adidas sneaker, Stephen Curry’s signature Under Armour shoes, and the Air Jordan 31 Low. He finished up the league on the sidelines in a pair of Sandalboyz slides, too. Ball later confirmed the purpose of wearing models from competing brands was to re-ignite a bidding war most companies supposedly were no longer entertaining. The major brands reportedly walked away after his dad, Lavar Ball, made it known they were looking for a billion-dollar partnership with BBB instead of a typical endorsement deal, which seemed more like a marketing strategy than a realistic expectation.
The rookie point guard led the Lakers to the summer league title and landed MVP honors despite not playing in the final. He nearly averaged a triple double, shattered the league record with 9.2 assists per game, and produced his fair share of highlights. In short, his performance doubled as a coming out party for the player and the brand to potential suitors in a footwear deal. "It's making a statement to the brands of what they could have had with an open mind," LaVar Ball recently told ESPN regarding his son’s summer league shoe rotation. "The players are the brand ambassadors. The brand is nothing without the players."
The elder Ball’s stance has merit, but only to a certain degree. Big Baller Brand would need to make sure its footwear could stand the rigor of a NBA game. Major companies already have the research and product testing in place. In order to become anything more than a marketing ploy, Big Baller would have to invest considerable resources to build a shoe to match the level of quality comparable to what Nike, Adidas, and others already make. The amount of money and resources required are what could hold Big Baller Brand back from becoming a true competitor in the space. They would benefit greatly from aligning with an established sneaker company with the experience to make a shoe that both looks and performs. It's the difference between Kanye West making his own Yeezy Season 1 and him creating industry-quality product with Adidas. One's been proven to the public, while the other carries a high price tag and questionable manufacturing. LaVar even said that making a pair of sneakers was just rubber and glue on Complex's Sneaker Shopping.
The major brands all already have marquee players in place and the other top draft picks from the 2017 class have inked sneaker endorsement deals. “Those brands don’t need Lonzo Ball right now, so I don’t think he has any additional leverage with them after his summer league performance,” says Ulysses King, VP of media strategy at The OutCast Agency, a company that helps build brands. “But, I take the long view on these things. If he wins Rookie of the Year, makes the Lakers relevant again, and possibly makes the playoffs in a few years, then he definitely will have more leverage with brands.” Success on the court and endorsement deals outside of footwear put Lonzo and Lavar Ball in a position to negotiate a partnership with a sneaker company. He’s shown early promise, but he’ll have to sustain it for a few seasons to turn potential corporate partners into believers.
Any shoe company with its eyes on the future should definitely be looking at Ball. LaVar Ball understands that better than most industry insiders give him credit. “It's crazy how much in the beginning I hated LaVar and this whole BBB deal,” says Derek Curry, owner of Louisiana-based boutique Sneaker Politics, “but now I'm starting to think this guy was the biggest marketing genius ever. The fact that I'm doing this interview right now is a sign that his plan is somewhat working.”
Basketball shoe sales have been slumping, as consumers have started to favor lifestyle and running sneakers, which could bode well for BBB. Adding a new, energetic player with an equally dynamic shoe could inject new life into the plummeting category. Inking a deal bringing the 19-year-old phenom to their lineup could be just what companies like Adidas and Under Armour need in their quest to gain traction in a category controlled by Nike and Jordan Brand. “There’s certainly a lot of hype around him right now so if a brand is struggling for relevancy or needs to up its ‘cool’ factor,’ I could see them benefiting by associating with Lonzo,” King says.
With the new season approaching, any brand aligned with Ball and BBB would automatically earn exposure similar to the attention given to Ball’s footwear choices over the past few weeks and months. Companies would be taking a risk considering taking on Lonzo means also including his family, specifically LaVar Ball. “No one wants to deal with the BBB traveling circus,” Curry says. “Maybe that is where a smaller brand or a brand with a weaker basketball category wins by snatching him."
The circus, itself, is real. Just look at the Ball family's appearance on WWE's Monday Night RAW, which looked like a Big Baller Brand commercial.
What Big Baller Brand has been great at is generating their own publicity. Initially, LaVar Ball rubbed many people the wrong way with his brash statements about his three sons potential to change the sport and the footwear market. “My take is that LaVar lost his Lonzo easy money in the beginning,” Curry says. “In the beginning, their approach was a little too ignorant and I think that may have made a few brands write off BBB.”
Now, Big Baller’s approach has shifted with Lonzo moving to the forefront. He let the world know the family was in on the joke thanks to a hilarious Foot Locker commercial. The son followed with a stirring Father’s Day letter and showed the world another side to himself in the process. His court play and sneaker choices are part of a well-timed shift of focus from Lavar to Lonzo, the one the family and the company’s hopes are pinned on for the immediate future.
The Ball's approach isn’t completely unprecedented considering another big-name Los Angeles player made a similar move. Think back to Kobe Bryant’s sneaker free agency campaign that took place during the 2002-03 season. Fresh out of his early endorsement deal with Adidas, Bryant hit the court wearing everything from exclusive Air Jordans to Converse and AND1 shoes. He eventually signed on with Nike and became one of the company’s faces for basketball marketing.
Lonzo Ball isn’t in the same rarefied space as Bryant, but the path to get there begins now. In fact, it’s already underway and off to a solid start. The only question is which sneaker brand will join him in the journey, or if Big Baller Brand will make the trek alone. With the right approach, Ball and BBB joining forces with a company willing to take risks could generate the boost of energy basketball sneaker sales need. “If that would happen we would all have to eat our words and LaVar would be the last one laughing,” Curry says. “I have asked a lot of our customers about the situation and it seems like no one really wants to wear something that is called Big Baller Brand. New name along with a new attitude and we may have something huge.”