Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball was the talk of NBA summer league, and not just for the sensational play that earned him MVP honors. The No. 2 overall draft pick played six games in Las Vegas -- in five different pairs of sneakers. But when the regular season tips off in October, Ball will almost certainly be lacing up the Big Baller Brand ZO2s, the shoe that drew more attention for its price point ($495 for most sizes) than its look or performance.
Ball's path to taking the court in a sneaker from his family's own brand is unlike anything seen before in the big business of athletic sneakers. Thanks largely to the cultural impact and lifestyle crossover that has spawned subcultures of avid collectors off the court, the U.S.-based sneaker industry now generates $17.5 billion in revenue annually -- and that's the market Lonzo's father, LaVar Ball, and his Big Baller Brand are trying to disrupt.
Can they pull it off? And what's it going to take to do it? Here is everything you need to know about how things work behind the scenes in the sneaker industry and how the Big Baller Brand is trying to change the game:
How does a partnership between a shoe brand and an athlete typically work?
Brands look to sign incoming rookies to four-year endorsement deals. If a brand feels strongly about a player, it might even offer a five-year length, as was the case with recent top picks Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Davis.
The money is paid quarterly to the player through his representation's agency. But if a player has his own signature shoe, he can earn an extra 5 percent royalty on every item sold bearing his signature logo, and an even higher signature royalty percentage on products sold in China. In some cases, a player will even have a couple hundred thousand dollars of his sneaker deal slotted toward funding an AAU team.
At the end of each rookie shoe contract -- typically Sept. 30 following the player's fourth or fifth NBA season -- the brand can also utilize its "right of first refusal" and match any new endorsement offer from a competing brand.
What is the process of creating a signature shoe? How long does it take?
The standard industry timeline for a signature shoe is anywhere between 12 to 18 months. Clearly, Big Baller Brand is working with an accelerated window to create its first ZO2 sneaker. The company began working on the shoe while Lonzo was still at UCLA.
The initial design time can take three to four months, with an athlete and designer meeting in person, exchanging email and even talking on FaceTime to go over design options, materials and colors. There's a bit of buffer time to also allow for updates to a design if the player dislikes the early progress, or even worse, hates the shoe altogether, which happens far more often than you'd expect.
The middle portion of the process allows for the shoe to be "wear-tested" -- a detailed undertaking in its own right that Big Baller Brand is just now working through, as Lonzo only began playing in prototypes of the ZO2 during summer league. Nike, Under Armour and Adidas work with their sponsored Division I college partners to test sneakers a year out in closed practice settings on youthful and explosive players, aiming to emulate the speed, power and forces exerted onto a sneaker by the world's best athletes at the NBA level.
The signature athlete will typically try on his future sneaker more than a year in advance, and then play in a prototype version during closed practices in March and April before the shoe's release in the fall. From a resources standpoint, it'll be some time before Big Baller Brand is able to house the facilities and technology that other brands have at their disposal.
What are the costs of making a basketball shoe -- and why is the ZO2 so expensive?
In addition to the salary costs of a design team (most brands have as many as five or six dedicated basketball designers), there are also well-compensated executive, marketing, player relations, public relations and social media staff to account for. During the course of developing a shoe, the brand will have to eat the cost of producing prototypes and updating revisions along the way. The team will also typically fly to Asia twice per year to spend a week working on the shoe at the factory. Those costs can add up, and then there's the cost of actually producing the shoes for retail.
This is where things get tricky for Big Baller Brand and make the venture so ambitious -- and similarly impressive -- to even try in the first place. The upper portions of sneakers are normally composed of several panels that are stitched and melded together. The pricing is simply based on the quality of materials selected and the complexity of the design to construct them all together.
The bottom part of the midsole and outsole, together known as the "tooling," can rapidly ramp up costs. Each size warrants its own separate "tooling mold" -- a metal cavity that rubber is poured into and then molded through a heating process into the bottom of the shoe. A mold can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the size and geometry. For a full-size run of sneakers ranging from sizes 7 through 13, including most half-sizes, that could mean paying for as much as 10 tooling molds.
At a steep $495 per pre-ordered pair, Big Baller Brand is likely passing those upfront factory costs of each tooling along to the customer. For established brands, their retail partners will place orders on shoes at least six months in advance, allowing a brand to know the quantity to produce and justifying the tooling costs before a shoe is even put into production. Big Baller Brand is simply selling its sneakers through its website.
How unprecedented is the move to launch Big Baller Brand?
Several rookies have entered the NBA with their own signature sneaker. Michael Jordan famously first sported the Air Jordan 1 over 30 years ago. Reebok made the Shaq Attaq and Question sneakers for both Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson to wear for their league debuts in the 1990s. In the 2000s, LeBron James donned the Air Zoom Generation as the most-hyped rookie the league has ever seen, and John Wall wore his Reebok Zig Slash sneaker for his rookie season in 2010.
No NBA player has ever entered the league with his own brand. Jordan, the most successful sneaker endorser ever, didn't have such a venture until he'd been in the league for more than a decade. Retaining all rights to his own likeness and potential revenues from the Big Baller Brand's sales has allowed for Lonzo and LaVar Ball's ambition to catch the eyes of players of all levels. There are already conversations among players looking to follow a similar path and launch their own personal family brands. It would take a perfect storm of several variables for another player to try it.
What elements of the normal marketing process is Big Baller Brand forgoing?
Most brands will allocate as much as $10 million each fall toward marketing and promoting the newest flagship sneaker. That money goes toward hiring a production company to make a commercial, a photographer to shoot the featured athlete in multiple settings and editions of the new shoe, and placing media buys to have the commercial aired, social media posts promoted, stories written and products featured as the shoes are hitting retail.
Thanks to social media and the family's overnight platform, Big Baller Brand is bypassing all of those costs and processes. The family's five accounts have more than six million combined followers on Instagram alone. BBB released an unveil video of the ZO2 sneaker with SLAM Magazine a month before the NBA draft that generated more than seven million impressions across social media in just 48 hours.
By taking on its own communications, primarily through social media, Big Baller Brand can skip the traditional costs and processes that brands have come to budget for. It's a direct-to-audience model that both competing brands and upcoming players are watching closely.
Just how much money is Lonzo Ball leaving on the table?
If Lonzo Ball had been interested in signing a traditional endorsement deal, brands were expected to initially offer at least $1.5 million per year. That would be in line with offers made to fellow rookies Markelle Fultz, De'Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson. After being drafted by the Lakers as the second overall pick, Ball's base number realistically could have escalated to more than $2.5 million per year, according to multiple brand sources.
With incentive bonuses for on-court achievements such as being selected to the Rising Stars Challenge, making first-team All-Rookie or even winning Rookie of the Year, the value of the deal could have been as high as $3 million annually over four years. At a five-year length, the Ball family is leaving as much as $15 million on the table.
Which sneakers has Lonzo Ball worn to date?
During his lone season at then-Adidas sponsored UCLA, Lonzo opted to wear the Crazylight Boost 2016 for most of the season, which heavily influenced the design of his ZO2 model. He later switched to the Adidas Harden Vol. 1 model for the team's conference tournament and postseason run. After starting off summer league in his Big Baller Brand signature shoe for the first two games of the Lakers' schedule, Ball soon was rotating his footwear on a game-by-game basis, generating a frenzy of interest before each game's tipoff:
Big Baller Brand ZO2 (two-game average: 8.0 points, 8.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds)
Nike Kobe AD (36 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds, 5 steals)
Adidas Harden LS (16 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds)
Under Armour Curry 4 "Finals" (14 points, 7 assists, 9 rebounds)
Air Jordan XXX1 Low (16 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds)
The Nike, Adidas and Jordan models were the most recently available colorways launched in stores, and Ball wearing them came as a surprise to sources at the respective companies. Presumably, Ball or an associate simply purchased the pairs on his own while in Las Vegas during that week. He's a commonly available size 13.
The Under Armour sneaker, however, was sent directly to Ball. The pair was originally made in size 12.5 for Under Armour headliner Stephen Curry to wear on the road in Game 6 of the 2017 NBA Finals. When the Warriors won the series in just five games, Curry had some unworn pairs on hand. An executive for Curry's personal brand is a Chino Hills native with a prior relationship with the Ball family, leading to the Curry 4 making its way to Lonzo, who made them work for a game despite the half-size difference.
Is the Ball family currently negotiating with any brands?
No. After meeting with representatives from each of the major domestic basketball brands -- Nike, Adidas and Under Armour -- as far back as December 2016, none of the company reps had an interest in LaVar's offered "co-branded partnership" structure. Up until the Big Baller Brand unveiled the ZO2 sneaker, Adidas was still interested in making a standard endorsement offer.
After each stateside brand passed on expressing interest, Big Baller Brand engaged China-based athletic brand Anta to discuss a potential partnership. Anta currently has traditional sponsorship deals with Klay Thompson and Rajon Rondo, and made signature shoes for Kevin Garnett for his final seven seasons in the league. After a "round of conversations," according to a source, Anta declined repeated requests for a follow-up meeting after Big Baller Brand presented them with a private label manufacturing concept.
What are the next steps for Big Baller Brand?
Since launching the $495 pre-order edition of the ZO2 sneaker, along with an autographed $995 "collector's edition," Big Baller Brand is on the hook to both manufacture and deliver the shoe to customers by the Nov. 24 promised ship date. More than 700 pairs have already been ordered. All things considered -- sky-high price, six-month shipping delay, brand that has never before made a shoe -- it's a respectable number that beat out the expectations of several rival industry sources.
In the meantime, Big Baller Brand is still looking for a partner to help provide both resources and manufacturing capabilities as it continues to get started in the footwear industry. For many industry experts, the perception of the brand will rely less on BBB's design and marketing, and more on the play of Lonzo Ball. Should he continue his all-around strong team play and impact on the game once the regular season begins, while playing for a storied franchise in one of the league's iconic markets, Big Baller Brand just might become a disruptive force unlike anything the industry has ever seen.
Nick DePaula is the creative director for Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector Magazine.