P .T. Barnum, Tex Rickard, Bobby Riggs, Don King, Evel Knievel, Howard Stern, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga and now LaVar Ball. This is not an exhaustive list by any means — but is representative of the antics and showmanship that attracted media attention and public interest. There can be little doubt that LaVar Ball is capitalizing on being outrageous, and with many more outlets crying out for content than ever before, he has found an audience with an insatiable appetite and curiosity. Will it translate into sales for the Big Baller Brand? It’s probably too early to tell at this point. Maybe the ZO2 will someday rival the Jordan Brand or perhaps it will become more of a collectible curiosity like a can of Billy Beer (named after President Carter’s wannabe famous brother Billy).
P.T. Barnum began a concert tour for Jenny Lind by announcing that the demand was so great for tickets that he couldn’t just put them on sale — so he held an auction. At the time, we didn’t know that the highest bidder was an associate of Barnum whose job was to drive the price as high as possible to attract attention. Ball didn’t need any such help — he simply announced that the ZO2 Prime, the first shoe to be launched by Big Baller Brand, would sell for $495. A price more than double the most expensive shoes currently on the market and named after Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry.
|LaVar Ball and the Big Baller Brand continue to attract attention, criticism and curiosity.
This price point has been a lightning rod for both attention and criticism. Daymond John, who started the FUBU (For Us By Us) brand independently and is now a “Shark Tank” investor, feels that Big Baller Brand and the ZO2 Prime is a good gamble, but that Ball needs to be careful — obviously not Ball’s long suit and, in fact, that trait probably doesn’t even hang in his closet. John suggests that rather than taking on the shoe companies, the ZO2 Prime should be a “proof of concept” for Ball. He further suggests that Ball “should take his time, make a good shoe, learn about his target market and then bring a proven winner of a brand to a major shoe company and grow from there.” To me that seems like sage counsel, but Ball doesn’t appear to want any counsel other than his own.
To be candid, I brought up the FUBU example on my Sutton Impact Family Style podcast earlier this month. A FUBU-type approach with a good product might attract support from the black consumer market the same way that FUBU did, and at the same time, serve as a source of inspiration for other entrepreneurs. I probably would have priced the shoe at $1 to $5 more than the most expensive shoe on the market — thus still owning the positioning as the most expensive basketball shoe in the marketplace. I probably would have also borrowed the concept from Toms Shoes and for every pair sold I would have made some type of investment in youth basketball programs or another cause. But enough about what I would do — I’m not making any shoes.
On “Undisputed” earlier this month, Ball defended the pricing of the shoe by saying that people are seeing the price and missing the point. The point he said is that the shoe is symbolic. According to Ball, “Symbolic as he’s [Lonzo] the first one ever to come in here [the NBA] without ever playing a game and have his own brand.” And perhaps that is at the core of the issue regardless of price. What has he accomplished? I saw Lonzo Ball play twice this year — at USC and in the Sweet 16 versus Kentucky where he was upstaged and outplayed by Kentucky’s point guard De’Aaron Fox. While I claim no expertise in evaluating basketball talent, I did leave both games wondering what all the fuss was about, and when I look at Lonzo, I question whether he is a willing participant in this entire process. If he becomes the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft and if he ends up playing in a big market like Los Angeles, the target that his father placed on his back will grow exponentially. If he turns out to be a draft-day bust or even a disappointment, perhaps the target market for the ZO2 Prime will be limited to “sneakerheads” and not serious ballers who might elect to stay with proven brands.
|The shoe in question
LaVar Ball has been poked fun at by late night television hosts and ESPN personalities, and Anthony Adams created a spoof of the Big Baller Brand via a mock commercial. But is it genius and part of his master plan — or an unfortunate reaction to his marketing vision and prowess? After his appearance on “Undisputed,” Ball and the Big Baller Brand was the nation’s No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. When asked how many shoes had been sold, his answer was about 495 pairs — not a figure that would have footwear production companies begging for his business nor would it have the executives at Dick’s Sporting Goods creating new exhibit areas and pushing Nike and Under Armour aside to make room for the Big Baller display.
I have to admit that part of me is pulling for Ball to pull this off. I love David versus Goliath stories, although I laugh when I think of Ball in the David role. But as Malcolm Gladwell inferred in his book “David and Goliath” — we all love the story, but maybe David should have been the favorite all along.
I’ll close with some advice for Ball from Barnum: “No man has the right to expect to succeed in life unless he understands his business and nobody can understand his business thoroughly unless he learns it by personal application and experience.” Hopefully the lesson won’t be a hard one.
Bill Sutton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.