It's time LaVar Ball starts paying attention to a valuable consumer base -- women

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

LaVar Ball continues to spark debate, eliciting accusations of misogyny after an appearance on Fox Sports 1's "The Herd" that resulted in a confrontation with co-host Kristine Leahy.

On Wednesday, Ball went on the show and seemed immediately dismissive of Leahy, telling her to "stay in your lane" and turning his back to her when addressing her. Toward the end of the interview, Leahy accused Ball of being disrespectful toward women, to which he responded: "I would never disrespect women, but if you act like that, guess what? Something's coming to you."

The ensuing debate among media and fans has focused on a not-quite-nuanced discussion about race versus gender.

That's a conversation for a different column, but given broader context, Wednesday's confrontation becomes much more complex. There is a history of interview subjects, regardless of race, taking more exception to a challenging question asked by a woman reporter than if it were asked by a man.

And the conversation about race and gender has obscured a smaller, yet valid point Leahy was trying to make: Women as consumers are valuable to a brand's success, particularly in the sports apparel industry.

The argument on Wednesday stemmed from comments Leahy had made earlier this month about the need for Ball's Big Baller Brand to market to women. The company recently announced its first sneaker for Ball's son Lonzo, starting at $495.

Citing reports that Adidas, Nike and Under Armour had all passed on an endorsement deal with Lonzo, leaving Big Baller Brand to manufacture and market on its own, Leahy had suggested that Ball might want to think about creating products and campaigns targeted to women too.

She reiterated those sentiments on Wednesday, saying, "In order to have a successful company, you're going to have to have women who like your brand."

"Uh, yeah, if you have a women's company," Ball answered. "But anyways."

Leahy is speaking to the specific frustration long experienced by women sports fans. The dearth of merchandise, both in regular athletic wear and official team gear, designed for women is a common issue; most female fans know what it's like to walk into a store looking for your team's jersey in your team's colors only to find that the only women's offerings are covered in pink and rhinestones.

I once walked into a major sporting goods store in midtown Manhattan looking for a women's Eli Manning jersey only to be told by the salesman that they didn't carry women's sizes: "Most women just buy the children's jerseys."

Ironically, the league that gets women's merchandise as close to right is the one Ball's son will enter next month. The NBA store in midtown Manhattan is a sprawling building with an entire floor dedicated to women's and children's apparel.

Outside of official team gear, Leahy is right in advising Ball to look to how those big apparel brands market to women if he plans on growing Big Baller Brand into a global player.

In 2015, Nike announced a marketing campaign with the goal of growing its women's business from $5.7 billion to $11 billion in 2020. Under Armour's staggering growth in the past six years, averaging 20 percent growth per quarter, has been largely driven by its women's strategy, with that side of the business growing to $1 billion in revenue last year. Adidas has been comparatively slow to adopt a female focus, finally adopting a women's strategy just last year after falling to third place, behind Under Armour, in the U.S. sportswear market.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank will readily tell you that when his company first marketed to women, it was highly misguided -- "a bunch of dudes" designing apparel for women that hit the wrong note under the old "pink it and shrink it" strategy. As Plank said at the espnW Women + Sports Summit in 2015, it wasn't until Under Armour hired women product designers and product managers and also listened to feedback from female consumers that the company clearly saw its women's strategy start to pay off.

Despite seeming dismissive of the idea of catering to women, Ball's Big Baller Brand does sell items for women, albeit with a limited women's line of nine T-shirts.

Perhaps it's time to start paying attention to a valuable and growing consumer base. True big ballers don't leave money on the table.

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