How Lavar Has Dropped The Ball

Written by Yoni Berhanu — June 22,2017

Who Is He?

You either hate him or you love him. He doesn’t really give you any other option. He is Lavar Ball, the polarizing, outspoken father of projected top-3 pick in tonights’s NBA Draft, Lonzo Ball (UCLA). Rather than play the background role of supportive father through his son’s rapid ascent to stardom, Lavar has elected to stand front and center. From weekly appearances on major sports networks, to outrageous proclamations, Ball has been a ubiquitous force in the media, brashly promoting Lonzo and the family brand, Big Baller Brand (BBB). In his relentless quest to make BBB a household name, the notorious helicopter dad has spurred much debate amongst pundits, athletes, and on social media. I will attempt to provide my own analysis of the viability of his business strategy.

Billion-Dollar Dreams

Let’s evaluate Lavar Ball’s strategy against his own stated goal: Grow the family brand, Big Baller Brand, into a billion-dollar sports apparel company. Until recently, BBB was relatively anonymous. Then came the bomb: Lavar Ball’s announcement that the company’s first major product, Lonzo Ball’s “ZO2 Prime” signature shoe, would cost a staggering $495. This unveiling came on the heels of the widely publicized rejection of Ball’s licensing pitch to Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour.

The proposed partnership was unconventional.

Rather than entertain a standard endorsement deal with any of the major brands, Lavar wanted a 10-year, $1 billion co-branding partnership wherein BBB (which also includes Lavar Ball’s other two sons) would be officially licensed. If reading that Lavar Ball asked for $100 million per year for an unproven NBA prospect plus two high school players baffles you, you’re in good company — that’s how much Nike pays six-time NBA champion and consensus G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan now.

Typically, when a player with star potential enters the league, they sign a shoe deal with one of the major brands in hopes of eventually having a signature shoe produced by that company. In exchange, the company receives the lion’s share of sales, controls the product’s creative vision, and determines the marketing and pricing strategy. While Ball’s desire to maintain full control of BBB as its own entity is an admirable and entrepreneurial idea, interest in the brand appears to be dependent on shock value. So Ball must ask himself, how long can that last?

The Shoes Cost How Much?!

Yes, the $495 price tag on Lonzo’s ZO2 Prime is probably the impetus for this article. And yes, the media coverage (including this very piece) amounts to millions of dollars of free marketing — but not for good reason. Lavar Ball contends that BBB is a luxury brand, invoking Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Versace price points as justification for the shoe’s pricing. However, there is likely a significant disparity between the cost of production for a $495 Gucci shoe and the reportedly cheaply manufactured ZO2 Prime. Ball’s assertion that expensive brands set their prices high in order to establish a perception of exclusivity is a fair one. However, not only is there a production quality gap, but the consumer markets between BBB and luxury fashion brands are incomparable. In other words, the average consumer of sports apparel is almost certainly in a lower socioeconomic demographic than the average consumer of Gucci products. This gives rise to a major concern: Who exactly is the shoe targeting?

Pictured: Lonzo Ball’s Cheaply Made, Yet Highly Priced ($495) ‘ZO2 Prime’

Who’s Gonna Buy Those, Man?

The obvious primary concern for Lonzo Ball’s ZO2 Prime is the eye-popping $495 cost, which eliminates the vast majority of consumers right off the bat. For reference, LeBron James’ Nike LeBron XIV’s go for $175. This means that Lonzo faces what appears to be an impossible task — garner enough appeal in the first few years of his career to justify spending three times as much on his shoe than those of objectively far superior players. Moreover, he must do this without the production quality, industry influence, or marketing expertise of a major brand. This is a tall order even if Lonzo scratches the surface of a LeBron James, which any NBA scout worth their salt would tell you he won’t.

Lonzo MUST Ball

To be clear, if Lonzo is shuttling back and forth between the NBA and the Gatorade League (previously known as the NBA Developmental League) next year, BBB is toast. Now that won’t happen, as he is more likely to win Rookie of the Year than to ever suit up for the South Bay Lakers (Lakers Gatorade League affiliate), but the point serves to illustrate the importance of Lonzo’s performance to the brand. This is simply the reality of an elitist signature shoe market reserved for league headliners like LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving.

As we witnessed just this past year, Steph Curry’s disastrous “Curry 2 Low Chef” signature shoe led to Under Armour suffering its first quarterly loss in company history. Some attribute the poor sales to Curry’s star dimming with the arrival of superstar Kevin Durant to the Warriors. Others point to its horrific design, which was seemingly more appropriate for a retirement home than a basketball court. Regardless of the culprit, we saw that even shoes backed by a repeat MVP and a red hot multibillion-dollar company aren’t guaranteed to fly off the shelves. In Lonzo’s case, because he essentially is Big Baller Brand (the other two sons are still in high school and not as highly touted), he bears the colossal burden of knowing that the fate of the family brand is inextricably linked to his play very early in his career.

Pictured: Steph Curry’s ‘Curry 2 Low Chef’ Preferred Use: Memes

What’s The Marketing Message?

Free marketing aside, Lavar Ball has undermined his objective of turning BBB into a billion-dollar brand. While Ball has been deemed a mastermind by some, his volatile temperament has impaired his judgment on more than one occasion. During a recent appearance on FoxSports1’s, “The Herd,” Ball was asked about the price of BBB’s ZO2 Prime, and plans to appeal to women — both fair questions considering the lofty goals of a fledgling brand like BBB. After growing frustrated with the line of questioning, Ball’s respective retorts to the questions were, “If you can’t afford the [$495] shoes, you’re not a big baller,” and “Go find a women’s brand then.”

Even Ball’s staunchest supporters should concede that disparaging those who can’t afford the shoe (the majority of the country) is not conducive to building a global brand. And the irony of Ball telling FS1’s Kristine Leahy to go find a women’s brand is that BBB actually does have a women’s section, as he did eventually point out. Now for the record, I found Leahy’s incendiary “are you threatening me?” question in the midst of her contentious back and forth with Ball to be a baiting tactic. Nonetheless, Ball’s responses only stood to hurt BBB, and further demonstrated that he is not the best long-term spokesman for the company.

Pictured: Lavar Ball and Kristine Leahy square off on FS1’s ‘The Herd’

To make matters worse, Ball has been a loose cannon in his valuation of the company and its products. Rather than try to understand the market, he seems to arbitrarily produce numbers that are directly correlated to how aggrieved he feels on any given day. Mere weeks after being rejected by Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas, Ball stated that his ludicrous $1 billion asking price “just went up to $3 billion” if any of them ever wanted to talk to him again. Ultimately, Lavar Ball must stop deluding himself and decide whether he really wants to grow a brand, or if he’s content with a boutique family company.

BBB’s Only Shot

Even though the odds are stacked against them, the Ball family does have some marketing advantages. For one, the social media era has transformed them into national celebrities overnight. Secondly, the Los Angeles Lakers landed the #2 overall pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. This stroke of luck was especially significant because the team’s president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, has made no secret of his desire to use the second pick on the California-bred Lonzo. In light of recent rumors that Lakers management is split on drafting Lonzo, we must remember that gamesmanship between NBA front offices is standard practice. It’s like poker after all — the less other teams know about what you want, the more leverage you have. Now that’s not to guarantee the Lakers will take him, but if purple and gold is in the cards for Lonzo, the stage is set. The marriage of Lonzo’s flashy passes and a Hollywood market starved for the revival of the ShowTime Lakers of the 80’s would be a match made in heaven for BBB.

If Lonzo pans out and his star begins to grow, Lavar Ball must strike while the iron is hot. A good first step would be for him to sponsor premier Amateur Athletic Union “AAU” (nation’s premier amateur sports organization) basketball teams in the Los Angeles area. By leveraging Lonzo’s newfound stardom in a major LA market, Lavar can eventually expand BBB’s sponsorship around the country with the goal of developing long-term relationships with the nation’s best young talent. These relationships are vital for BBB’s future. The reason for that is because all your favorite NBA players started off in AAU, and establishing brand familiarity in a child’s formative years is crucial to brand loyalty down the line.

Furthermore, Ball must improve the quality of future BBB brand shoes and reduce the price to the $200 range. After all his bravado, a 60% price drop would be mocked initially, but that doesn’t matter. These margins would represent sustainable competitive business rather than a gag gift cashing in on 15 minutes of fame. Lavar Ball must realize that while his ego is a short-term asset for BBB, it can also be a long-term liability. In summary, Ball must improve the product, refine the business development strategy, and adjust his attitude in order to sustain BBB’s momentum.

What’s It Really About, Lavar?

Finally, we have arrived at the most damning indictment of Lavar Ball: His ulterior motives. Admittedly, impugning motives can be a questionable practice, but one that I feel is warranted in this case. Throughout his meteoric rise into the sports spotlight, some of Ball’s biggest supporters have been outspoken black athletes and minorities on social media. Understandably, these loyalists have lauded Lavar’s strong presence as a black father, and trusted in the purity of his intentions. But I believe that trust to be a willful blind eye. From the very beginning, this whole saga has reeked of an overbearing father hell-bent on living vicariously through his sons. This also makes one question if BBB is Lavar Ball’s last attempt to maintain control over Lonzo, considering his son will gain financial independence from him in less than 24 hours.

Ball’s saving grace up to this point has been his ability to look out for his own best interests under the guise of gaining precious free marketing for his sons. In his kids, Lavar Ball sees an opportunity for himself to become a business mogul and perhaps launch his own media career. Ball can disprove this theory by phasing himself out of the public eye if BBB does take off, a move that would show it really was all about getting visibility for his sons. But it feels more like after an utterly unremarkable basketball career, Ball views his sons as his second chance at stardom — one that he doesn’t plan on squandering.

BBB’s Doom

Thus far, Lavar Ball has been tight-lipped about the ZO2 Prime’s sales figures. While we don’t have access to all the numbers, according to CBS Sports, 263 units of the shoe were sold on in the first 24 hours. This included 210 units of the standard $495 ZO2 Prime, and 53 units of the special edition autographed $995 version, for a first day’s revenue of ~ $160,000. These numbers are certainly respectable considering the infancy of BBB and the fact that Lonzo has yet to dribble a ball in the NBA, but they are more likely a product of unsustainable hype than an indicator of future growth.

In fairness to Lavar Ball, perhaps only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have enough star power to establish a global brand without a major partnership (and you could argue Nike’s brilliant marketing campaigns helped them attain that level of power, especially in Jordan’s case). And he certainly isn’t the first father to believe his sons can achieve that level of greatness. Unfortunately, due to poor pricing, aesthetics, and quality, it is difficult to envision a sustainable market for the ZO2 Prime.

That being said, I’m betting that Big Baller Brand merchandise will either end up on the clearance rack, or discontinued completely in the coming years. From there, Lonzo will likely go on to sign with one of the major brands, and perhaps one day have another signature shoe produced with Lavar phased out.

Pictured: Ball has been a looming presence at his sons’ games at Chino Hills (CA) High

At What Cost Though?

In order to elicit some honesty about how far Lavar Ball’s supporters would go to support BBB, let’s briefly shift our attention to this year’s prohibitive favorite for NBA MVP, Russell Westbrook. It’s no secret that other players, including all-stars, are in awe of Westbrook’s extraterrestrial on-court exploits. They post flame emoji’s, wide eyes, and hashtags on the timeline whenever they get a night off to watch him. But what would these all-stars say off record if asked to join Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency? Nah. But why? Westbrook’s scintillating one-man show may be great theater even for other star players, but they know that the very same explosive triple-doubles they fawn over mean less shots and a minimized role for them. Even newly-crowned Finals MVP Kevin Durant, one of the best scorers in league history, couldn’t change Westbrook in the end.

The takeaway here is this: It’s easy to support something until it directly affects you.

Which begs the billion-dollar question for the pro-Lavar Ball crowd: Would you buy a pair of ZO2 Primes? No? Ok, do you know anyone who would? Alright then. Lavar Ball wouldn’t like what I’m driving at, but then again — he doesn’t give a damn what I think.