This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!
AS THE U.S. men's basketball team exited its plane in Beijing in 2008, players sported headphones. The lowercase b, that now-ubiquitous Beats by Dre logo, became an uppercase Big Deal. And LeBron James was behind it.
Just like that, two worlds intertwined. Cam Newton, Serena Williams and Alex Ovechkin signed with Beats; Skullcandy landed Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving; 50 Cent's SMS Audio launched a Carmelo Anthony-backed product; and Bose became official headphone of the NFL. When Colin Kaepernick wore pink Beats on the podium, the NFL slapped him with a $10,000 fine.
"It used to be graybeard guys listening to vinyl," says Ben Arnold, an industry analyst for the NPD Group. "But Dr. Dre and LeBron put these premium headphones closer to mass consumers, and it sold in a big way." Last year Apple's $3 billion acquisition of Beats snagged around 60 percent of the premium-headphones market.
But is the athlete approach fading? Maybe, Arnold says. These days, he suggests, "that's not enough to make you stand out." At least one brand is already going rogue, abandoning the superstar endorsement and targeting the budding audiophile. Last August Blue Microphones released Mo-Fi, a $350 headphone, as an indie band of sorts. "It'll be seen as a badge of honor," says Blue's Adam Castillo, "like you have to be in the know to have these things." Kind of like LeBron back in 2008.