Last month, LaVar Ball, a retired football player reborn as a full-time sports parent, tended to some chicken on his barbecue while preaching about his new athletic apparel company Big Baller Brand. He was responding via Instagram video to a Nike executive who had called him “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years.” “So I’m the worst thing to happen in a hundred years? That’s ‘cause everybody been in the darkness for a hundred years,” LaVar said with his trademark bravado, smirking in a crisp, white BBB long-sleeve T-shirt.
“Let me tell you something, I know I’m on the right step because if nothing like this ain’t happened in a hundred years, then guess what? We in a new lane, baby. That Big Baller Brand about to be your competition. How about that?” he added, before turning his attention back to the grill. These were strong fighting words, and they perfectly illustrated BBB’s attitude towards the old guard of professional sports. The entertaining brash talk that has earned him derision from the likes of Nike execs is what has come to define LaVar’s family brand: irreverence and a willingness to burn bridges in the pursuit of success.
Black people make up 13.3 percent of the US population, but only own 9.3 percent of businesses. A new addition is BBB, which recently debuted its first sneaker, the ZO2, to much controversy over its $495 price tag as well as its underwhelming design. The shoe features a matte black and yellow colorway, scaly outer shell, and generic shape. Other BBB offerings include T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and shorts ranging from $32 to $100; a pair of ZO2 slides is available for $220. The brand was founded by LaVar and “inspired” by his three sons — high school basketball players LiAngelo and LaMelo and UCLA star Lonzo, who is expected to be a top NBA draft pick. With BBB, LaVar is attempting something unprecedented in athleticwear today: moving forward as an independent brand, even after industry giants Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour declined to back it.
But people haven’t rallied in support around BBB or its owners, despite what could be interpreted as a David and Goliath story of a black-owned startup taking on an industry that has built its wealth on the labor of black athletes and the appeal of black culture. Instead of championing LaVar’s drive to secure an equal partnership, and not just an endorsement deal, for Lonzo, some basketball insiders and fans have voiced doubts and even ridicule for BBB. Citing the ZO2’s cost and the obnoxiousness of its founder, current sports analyst and former NBA champion/fledgling rapper Shaquille O’Neal called out LaVar in a tweet. “Real big baller brands don't over charge kids for shoes,” he said.
When a reporter asked Golden State Warriors interim head coach Mike Brown whether he would buy his kids $500 shoes “from an unproven NBA player after college,” he laughed heartily and replied, “Uh, no.” And when pre-sale orders of the shoe were rumored to be only in the hundreds, some media outlets seemed to relish the apparent failure with headlines like “The little we know about LaVar Ball shoe sales sounds pitiful”, “Report: Less than 300 Big Baller Brand shoes were sold on first day”, and How many pairs of Lonzo Ball's $495 shoes sold in the first week of availability?
A few notable athletes, including Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and two-time NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, have shown support for BBB. Marbury, who runs his own sneaker brand and who once faced criticism for calling out the mark-up on Jordan shoes, even expressed interest in working with the Balls. The Game also spoke out in defense of the ZO2, writing on Instagram that he'd bought a few pairs of the shoe for his son and a few of his friends. He wrote: “I’ve spent over a million dollars, shit probably more on Nikes, Jordans & other big name sneaker brands in my lifetime so why not support a family brand & a rising stars shoe?” But overall, the current conversation about BBB seems to revolve around its founder’s supposedly ill-fated defiance of shoe world order.
The Balls are trying to do exactly what American capitalism and modern pop culture have taught us: turning their brand into a buck. So what exactly is the problem?
Now it’s true that $500 for a pair of sneakers is a lot more than the majority of Americans can afford, and that the shoes are missing some design finesse. Most people will not be rushing to wait in line to buy ZO2s. But, as LaVar put it rather callously in a tweet, “If you can't afford the ZO2'S, you're NOT a BIG BALLER!” Put another way: The casual shoe consumer is not BBB’s target market. Rather, BBB is trying to break into a luxury market. And compared to other high-end sneakers out there, the cost of the ZO2 is not so outrageous. Sneakers on Nike’s website go up to $400. And when it comes to beloved luxury brands like Saint Laurent and Maison Margiela sneaker prices go even higher, the latter’s reaching into the thousands. Add in the fact that BBB is a startup that has yet to start manufacturing the ZO2s on a mass market scale, and $495 sneakers don’t seem wildly out of line.
The Balls are trying to do exactly what American capitalism and modern pop culture have taught us: turning their brand into a buck. So what exactly is the problem? The answer may be that BBB, being independent and so new to the industry, shouldn’t have the audacity to aim for a market dominated by established, majority white-owned companies. LaVar and his sons aren’t the first black entrepreneurs to face criticism for allegedly overcharging for their products. Jokes about Kanye West’s high-priced Yeezy collections are still circulating on Twitter three months after his last fashion show. And, like LaVar, West is often criticized for his overconfidence and business ambition. Both have put their feet in their mouths several times in the past, but it's not as though others in the fashion and athletic apparel industries haven't.
West expressed his frustration with fashion world gatekeeping in a 2015 interview with Zane Lowe for BBC Radio: “As a celebrity you can help to promote something quickly but no one wanted to allow me to think or be involved in the product…” West’s many remarks about feeling disrespected by the fashion industry have frequently been written off as unhinged rants, but the experiences he describes have been echoed by black people and people of color in other industries, too. The doubt BBB has met in the sneaker industry is just the latest in a long, long, long line of black entrepreneurs being encouraged to wait their turn and being discouraged from trying to stake out success for themselves in white-dominated spaces.