At $495, Lonzo Ball’s ZO2 Sneakers Have Tastemakers Saying No Thanks

By Marc Tracy | New York Times


At the Flight Club sneaker store just south of Union Square on Thursday night, eager customers perused the gleaming shelves, hunting for classic kicks. The big names — the players whose signature shoes are most highly sought — are the ones you would expect: Kevin Durant, LeBron James and, even after all these years, Michael Jordan.

At the time, the larger world was trying to wrap its head around the ZO2, Lonzo Ball’s first signature shoe, which he had hours earlier announced in a video released to Slam magazine.

Ball, the former U.C.L.A. point guard who is expected to be a top-three pick in June’s N.B.A. draft, had declined contracts with the big sneaker companies: Nike, Under Armour and Adidas. Instead, he placed his chips on Big Baller Brand, the company founded by his father, LaVar Ball, for the frank purpose of maintaining control over the merchandise revenue generated by his three sons, Lonzo, 19; LiAngelo, 18, a U.C.L.A. commit; and LaMelo, 15, who scored 92 points in a high school game last season.

LaVar Ball’s opening bid to shoe companies some weeks ago was a marketing deal with all three sons worth $1 billion. The companies reportedly declined. Last month, a Nike executive called LaVar Ball “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last 100 years.” Translation: Nike doesn’t like when someone rejects the business model that has enabled the company to dominate the multibillion-dollar sneaker and apparel industry.

While the shoe and the Ball family buzzed all over social media on Thursday, the sneaker intelligentsia were lined up in Flight Club’s consignment area. These are the people who camp out on street corners to get first crack at new releases and then sell them to Flight Club for a cut of the subsequent resale. The leading edge of sneaker cool, they help decide which shoes will be on the shelves of Flight Club and stores like it 10 and 25 years from now. And they had reached a verdict on the ZO2: No thanks.
The ZO2: Prime by Lonzo Ball made its debut on the Big Baller Brand website on Thursday. Credit Big Baller BrandPhoto by: Big Baller Brand

“I wouldn’t buy those,” said T.Q. Jones, who wore Nike Prestos as he waited in the consignment line.

Haitham Khan — who was rocking a Comme des Garçons hoodie, a Supreme bag and blush-colored Common Projects sneakers — made a bold statement: “I can answer your question: No one’s going to buy them.”

Sneaker culture is shaped by substance as much as flash. Flight Club, for instance, prominently features sneakers linked to long-retired stars like Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing and Jordan not merely because those shoes are aesthetically pleasing, but because they are connected to incredible basketball talents.

As Jones said of Lonzo Ball: “I don’t know if he’s going to be a star.”

Then, too, there are utilitarian concerns. At least in theory, basketball sneakers are for playing basketball in, and Big Baller Brand was not believed to possess the same kind of technology that makes the established companies’ shoes user-friendly.

“I want to know how they perform,” said Karl Leung, who wore Adidas sneakers as he waited in the consignment line. Adidas is known for its Boost foam, he noted, while Nike has its Zoom cushioning.

Someone who pre-orders ZO2s today would be guaranteed shipping, according to Big Baller Brand, by Nov. 24 — a hint, Powell suggested, at the six-month lead time typically required to make and transport new shoes.

Many saw the shoe release as just the latest antic from LaVar Ball, who in the past few months has said that in his prime he could have beaten Jordan one-on-one (Ball briefly started at Washington State before transferring to a Division II team); that he married his wife, Tina, partly to have great basketball-playing sons; and that Lonzo Ball is better now than Stephen Curry is.

In an era in which marketing is conducted over social media and the loudest voice often carries the day regardless of what is being shouted, there is a certain logic to Ball’s strategy of being consistently outrageous. (Big Baller Brand did not reply to a request to comment.)

Lonzo Ball, right, shook hands with his father, LaVar, after U.C.L.A. beat Washington State in April. Credit Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressPhoto by: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

But the reality is that in electing not to sign an endorsement deal after insisting, ESPN reported, that any of the three biggest shoe companies license Big Baller Brand, the Balls left money on the table.

“I’m sure the brands all said, ‘Yeah, we’re interested, we’d like to pay him a couple million bucks,’” said Powell, pointing to the standard going rate for high draft pick rookies.

“The revenue opportunity they’ve had is now over,” Powell added.

Stephon Marbury, the former N.B.A. star who plays in China and is believed to be one of a few basketball players to have his own sneaker brand independent of a major shoe company — Starbury — praised LaVar Ball on Wednesday, telling The Undefeated website: “He should want to own his own brand. That is the smartest way of doing it.”

In the ZO2 release video, which is set to a Drake track and features Lonzo Ball training in his shoes near his hometown, Chino, Calif., the namesake himself spoke in those terms, too, advocating “a movement allowing us to be entrepreneurs, not just endorsers.”

From Curry’s receiving Under Armour stock as part of his deal to James’s cashing in on his shares of Beats when the headphones company was acquired by Apple, it is part of the zeitgeist for the most talented and savvy basketball players to seek and acquire equity.

The analogy falls short, though, because Ball is not yet Marbury, much less Curry.

It also does not help that Starbury shoes are deliberately inexpensive — some new ones start at $14.98 — while the ZO2s are, well, not.

“This shoe,” Dorfman said, “may be bought by collectors just to say that they had it.”

Or not. The Flight Club consignors dismissed even a proposal to shell out for ZO2s now on the off chance that everyone will be wanting them in a decade or so.

“I’d rather buy lottery tickets,” Leung said.

© 2017 The New York Times Company.


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