LOSING GAME

The dismal saga of basketball star Lonzo Ball’s doomed $495 sneaker

Obsession
Business of Sport
Obsession
Business of Sport

Lonzo Ball is just 19, but the UCLA point guard is easily among the most promising players to be hitting the NBA draft in June. He’s potentially the sort of force who could change a team’s offense, and has all the ingredients to be a star, which also makes him an emerging marketing power for selling basketball sneakers.

The typical route to a sneaker stardom is to sign with one of the big sports brands: Nike, Adidas, or now Under Armour, as Stephen Curry did. But all three have already passed on Ball after expressing early interest. Ball’s father, LaVar, demanded an unprecedented licensing deal—not just an endorsement contract—with the label he had already established, Big Baller Brand. He’s banking on Lonzo and his two other sons to transform Big Baller into a cash machine. The move, however, could be costly.

The fledgling company unveiled its first sneaker, the ZO2 Prime, Thursday (May 4), making it available for pre-order with expected delivery by the end of November. But with a price tag of $495, none of the distribution of a big brand, and Ball yet to even play a game in the NBA, it’s more likely to flounder than bring in the money over time that Ball and his father might have seen from a lucrative endorsement deal.

To put the price in perspective, the signature sneakers of NBA stars Kyrie Irving (Nike), James Harden (Adidas), Stephen Curry (Under Armour) and LeBron James (Nike) generally range in price from about $120 to $175. Under Armour’s Curry sneakers are widely discounted to around $100 right now because they haven’t sold as the company had hoped.

The reveal of the ZO2 Prime drew some derision on Twitter, mostly over the price. Even Shaquille O’Neal joined in.

The shoe’s unveiling came after weeks of talk about how LaVar Ball was handling his son’s rising profile. He had apparently been seeking $1 billion from Nike for a shoe and apparel contract for Lonzo and his two brothers, but Nike wasn’t interested. At a conference in late April, company executive George Raveling indulged in a little overstatement and called LaVar “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years.”

Ball has responded by saying the industry was unprepared for his new way of thinking, likening it in an odd stretch of logic to Uber disrupting the taxi industry. “Just imagine how rich Tiger [Woods], Kobe [Bryant], Serena [Williams], [Michael] Jordan and LeBron [James] would have been if they dared to do their own thing,” he told ESPN. “No one owned their own brand before they turned pro.”

It’s also easy to imagine the work required to build up their own distribution and infrastructure, rather than plugging into a giant such as Nike, with its massive marketing budget and retail partners all over the globe.

Ball and his sons can still profit, and there was no guarantee, of course, Lonzo Ball would ever have gotten his own signature shoe at a big brand. The family will also have total control over their company, which is worth something in itself. But selling overpriced sneakers in a crowded basketball market probably isn’t the recipe for major financial success.

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