Is LaVar Ball Changing The Game?

By Jamal Murphy

Love him or hate him, LaVar Ball has changed the game.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard a lot about this LaVar Ball guy, lately. He is, of course, the father of Lonzo Ball, the former UCLA basketball wunderkind, 6-foot-6 point guard with Magic Johnson-esque passing ability (if not the flair), and projected top-three pick in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft.

Ball Sr. has dominated sports-television airwaves (free of charge), been the main topic in barbershops, social media feeds and many a group text.

Predictably, people have that love-hate thing going on when it comes to him, with hate seemingly in the lead.

The either-or proposition appears misplaced since Ball, to me, represents both good and bad, so a love-and-hate scenario would make a lot more sense. Regardless, it is clear that LaVar Ball’s recent actions have forever changed the professional sports-marketing dynamic.

The game-changer came on Friday.

After weeks of free publicity, achieved by a willingness to speak bluntly, if not coherently, on any issue and the media’s penchant for clicks and rabble-rousing, Ball already had a formidable platform. But, after his co-branding partnership proposals were reportedly turned down by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, Ball made the brash move to go at it alone. As CEO of Big Baller Brand, Ball released his son Lonzo’s first signature sneaker, the ZO2, without the help of a major sneaker company, for a whopping $495 a pair.

If you thought he had an audience before, you hadn’t seen anything yet.

Instantly, the debate on television, social media and among social circles centered on how big of an idiot Ball was or whether, get this, he was actually a genius. The answer likely lays somewhere in between.

It is true that Ball’s blunderbuss interview approach often led to head-scratching statements, like Lonzo Ball is already better than Stephen Curry, that UCLA lost in the NCAA Tournament because they had white starters (after he had previously guaranteed they would win a championship with those same players), or the ultimate meaningless doozy, his statement that he would beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.

But other statements rang true or were taken out of context. Ball pointed out the hypocrisy of saying he is using his son, without saying the same about UCLA or the NCAA, which is clearly true. Also, his much- publicized comment that it would be tough for LeBron James’s sons, or anyone else for that matter, to live up to the legacy of their superstar father is simply facts, as the kids say.

So, it’s a mixed bag.

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Those in the LaVar Ball is a genius category point to all of the free advertising he was able to get by making calculated, outlandish statements that media outlets and fans ate up like Krispy Kreme donuts. But actually, Ball was just being himself. He has been a charismatic loudmouth for a long time. Just ask those that know him in Chino Hills, California, especially Stephan Gilling, the former varsity basketball coach at Chino Hills High School where all three of Ball’s sons played. Ball was a helicopter parent on steroids, who got Gilling fired after numerous run-ins with the coach over style of play and Ball allegedly attempting to coach the team from the stands, among other issues.

On the other hand, that helicopter parenting is likely the root of his most ingenious move.

Ball kept his sons away from the reviled AAU summer basketball sneaker circuits that sneaker companies use to prey on kids as early as 12 in order to sway their future sneaker-brand allegiances. Instead, Ball formed his own AAU squad, named it Big Ballers and sold merchandise long before most of us had any clue who he was.

Thus, Big Baller Brand is not new. It’s just new to us. Ball has been independent of the major sneaker companies since the beginning of his sons’ basketball careers and, in turn, his sons have been independent, as well. That is something all parents should think about and likely will. It is something LeBron James may think about with his sons.

The game has changed.

Now, back to those ZO2s and the $495 price tag. Paying that much for basketball sneakers sounds crazy and probably is, but charging that much sure got people talking.

The price tag is not a good look for young basketball fans from inner cities who could never even think of purchasing the sneakers. Michael Jordan, Nike and others have been criticized often for the high price of their sneakers, while marketing them to communities that cannot afford them. Not only does the price exclude this demographic, but it adds to the resentment between the haves and have-nots and sometimes results in violence over the sneakers. It is fair to criticize someone who ignores this dynamic, especially if they are from such a community.

However, Stephon Marbury, who famously has tried to address this issue by selling his own sneaker brand for $14.99 a pair in order to lessen the financial burden on underprivileged youth, has been on the record in defense of LaVar Ball’s vision and tactics.

Marbury supported Ball’s overall business model in an article by Marc Spears in The Undefeated prior to Friday’s official ZO2 rollout and tweeted that Ball was merely trying to identify a market after the $495 price tag became public.

Another theory on the high price is that he currently lacks the capital to mass-produce the sneakers, so he went the luxury brand route in order to make per-order production worthwhile. Finally, some believe that Ball simply used the outlandish price point to create the estimated $50 million worth of free media advertising he received based on response to the price tag.

Only time will tell whether LaVar Ball’s Big Baller Brand or the ZO2s will be a success on their own, in partnership with an established company, or will simply flop to the delight of many. But what we do know — already — is Ball has changed the game with a new business model and perspective that will likely be imitated.

So, perhaps both sides are right, despite the stiff polarization that accompanies the mere mention of his name, there may be much to love and hate about LaVar Ball.

Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at jmurphesq@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.

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