UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball had a lot invested in Tuesday night’s NBA draft lottery. Ball, whose court vision and playmaking ability have drawn rave reviews, is a consensus top-three pick. Getting picked by the right team in next month’s draft sets him up for a bright future although a poor fit or dysfunctional franchise could derail his career. The draft is equally important from a business standpoint, as a player’s salary for at least his first seasons is determined entirely by draft order.
Amid all this uncertainty, Ball and his family have already made one key decision about his future. Rather than sign a multimillion-dollar contract with Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, Ball’s father LaVar released Lonzo’s signature shoe through his Big Baller Brand (or “BBB”). LaVar, who wanted more than just a check from a major company, sought a licensing partnership for BBB. When rebuffed, he struck out on his own.
The resulting shoe – the ZO2 – arrived bearing a cool $495 price tag for the basic model, a sum far exceeding the most expensive Nikes. The backlash was immediate and harsh. The ZO2’s design was dismissed as at best derivative; LaVar’s insistence on partnership when Lonzo isn’t a household name or can’t-miss phenom smacked of hubris (he was a very good college player but is far from a future LeBron James or Michael Jordan); and the ZO2, an unremarkable shoe from a brand with zero cache, had no business costing what it did. LaVar Ball was cast as a huckster – he once claimed he could “kill” Jordan in a game of one-on-one, despite evidence to the contrary – and a charlatan.
But what if – his design skills aside – the elder Ball is onto something? While athletes are paid handsomely for endorsing sneakers, their earnings are dwarfed by those of the corporation paying them. Jordan’s fiefdom within Nike and Stephen Curry’s equity in Under Armour are two notable exceptions (the terms of James’s new Nike mega-deal were not disclosed it very likely includes equity too, and may be worth up to $1bn). The norm, though, remains a straightforward payment for services rendered.
In the music industry, many artists are full-fledged entrepreneurs. Rappers are practically expected to cultivate their own imprint and stable of talent – exactly the arrangement LaVar Ball was after. They know the value of controlling their publishing and masters. And as streaming continues to cripple labels, artists are increasingly choosing to go the independent route. Jay Z, Diddy, Dre, Birdman and others provide a clear playbook for artists to follow, regardless of their stature or level of success. At this point, African Americans hold sway in hip-hop. When it comes to basketball, the shoe game – despite being just as reliant on African American talent and contributions – is nearly the opposite.
The Balls’ goals need not be viewed as extraordinary. In the grand scheme of things, there’s nothing bizarre or presumptuous about athletes (or their fathers) wanting more from their deals. Equity or partnership isn’t an honor that should be limited to the truly great – they are terms that can be negotiated. The worst a company can say is “no”. LaVar Ball is painted as an outsider because he’s going against the industry’s status quo – but in the business world as a whole, pushing your luck is unremarkable.
Rather than applaud Ball for trying to advance his son’s interests – and those of athletes in general – those who accuse him of grandiosity side with corporate interests, who are all too happy to control the narrative. The fate of BBB has repercussions beyond LaVar and Lonzo Ball. If LaVar lands major investors or manages to land a partnership, it’s more impactful because Lonzo isn’t a once-in-a-generation talent. Not being exceptional allows him to set precedent for the average player. But if his father is written off as a buffoon, his example is quashed and his critique falls on deaf ears. And while he is speaking truth to power, as an outspoken black man, he’s more likely to be written off.
It’s worth noting that LaVar Ball may have overplayed his hand. Shoe companies and in turn consumers may simply never find Lonzo compelling enough to prop up a brand. The design of the ZO2 doesn’t exactly turn heads. And BBB’s overall aesthetic is, to say the least, lackluster. But LaVar Ball has started a conversation that could have significant influence. It might now be only a matter of time before a rookie with more leverage and more interesting product makes the same play, maybe even under the aegis of LaVar and BBB.
If BBB flounders, however, it could discredit LaVar Ball and by extension, his ideas. Would anyone want to follow in the footsteps of a failed venture? Would anyone want to be “the next Lonzo Ball” if that honor is dubious? Is anyone going to recognize Ball’s (quite reasonable) calls for change if he’s been marginalized? And whatever you think of LaVar Ball, Lonzo, BBB or the ZO2, there’s no question that they are in the right. LaVar may be the wrong person to make the right point but that need not lessen his impact.
We don’t need to lionize LaVar Ball. Doing so seems disingenuous and probably hurts his cause. He is highly entertaining and sometimes absurd, which is part of why he attracts so much attention. We should be entertained by his one-sided attempts to start beef with Jordan and LeBron: he makes basketball more fun, even if the laughs sometimes come at his expense. There’s no use in pretending he’s solemn, dead-serious, or some sort of noble crusader. It creates a dissonance that could dampen his impact.
If you resent corporate hegemony, you should hope BBB wins here. The Balls have called attention to fundamental problems that shoe companies need to address. Athletes should ask for more. When it comes to stakes in the shoe business, African Americans should be better represented. And there’s no reason why these things can’t be the norm. LaVar Ball may not be the one to change the game. But if he doesn’t, someone else will.