The NBA hosted its inaugural award show Monday night on national television.
This pseudo-event rolled out the red carpet for past, present, and future NBA stars – as well as celebrities like Drake, Nicki Minaj, 2 Chainz and many more. Golden envelopes revealed some of the season’s biggest debates, including Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and of course the MVP award.
The NBA had to assume that this concoction of Hollywood-themed flare would dominate the conversation on social media platforms, a substantial key performance indicator in today’s media climate.
And then… this overtook the social world:
If this seemingly deranged individual is not recognizable to you, let me be the first to welcome you to the year 2017:
LaVar Ball is a former Division II basketball player who claims he “would have killed Michael Jordan one-on-one.”
LaVar and his wife, Tina, are parents to three sons: Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo. Lonzo was recently drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. LiAngelo and LaMelo have committed to UCLA on basketball scholarships, just like their older brother Lonzo.
For the past few months, LaVar has made one outrageous claim after another, producing headlines and making the Ball family a consistent topic of discussion.
The reason behind LaVar’s comments and media appearances revolve around building his self-made brand: The Big Baller Brand.
Normally, the top college recruits who enter the NBA Draft receive lucrative contracts from sportswear and sneaker companies.
The past three No. 1 draft picks, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz, all signed with Nike. The 2014 first overall selection, Andrew Wiggins, signed with Adidas.
Rather than adhering to this social convention, LaVar is building his own brand for his sons and demanding a $1 billion shoe deal for all three Ballers.
Will it work? Will the Big Baller Brand succeed?
Only time will tell.
For now, we can only evaluate the family’s sudden assembly of a buzzworthy brand.
Some may have assumed LaVar Ball’s first outlandish comments would simply be a flash-in-the-pan. On Thanksgiving Day, he guaranteed UCLA would win the national championship.
And yet just a couple months later, he claimed Lonzo “will only play for the Lakers.” A demand that would eventually be satisfied.
In sports, we have seen several involved and confident parents making headlines, but this consistent jabber was undoubtedly methodical.
UCLA has a proud and historic men’s basketball program. And like most successful programs, there are limitations for freshman media availability. They are rarely interviewed, they have a stricter set of rules, and they certainly are not marketed by the program itself.
Today, most talented freshmen enter the NBA Draft at the conclusion of their first season; a phenomenon termed “One-and-Done.”
This is why athletes who play beyond their freshman season, into their junior and senior years, become the face of the team. They better exemplify the phrase “student-athlete,” and display a higher level of commitment and loyalty to the university. However, the head coach is usually the “face” of the program, as they are often the highest paid state employee and usually stick around longer than just four years.
Additionally, there is an east-coast bias in collegiate sports coverage. Personally, I believe this is the reason Alabama’s Derrick Henry won the 2015 Heisman Trophy over Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
Oregon tried to combat this perception in 2001 with a Joey Harrington Heisman Campaign billboard in Time Square.
Of course, the Heisman Trophy is primarily voted by New Yorkers, as it was originally appointed by the Members of New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. However, the east-coast bias extends well beyond awards.
While most east-coast residents are getting ready for bed, UCLA and other west-coast schools are just tipping-off at 10:30/11:00pm. Therefore, a large portion of the potential audience is unable or unwilling to watch for themselves.
Meanwhile, the headquarters of NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox are all located in New York City, while ESPN’s is located in Bristol, Connecticut. Therefore, there is an unquestionable gap in west-coast exposure, especially in collegiate sports.
These fundamental elements create the need for alternative solutions.
The perceived loudmouth of LaVar and the ensuing talk-show debates fulfilled that need.
Lonzo Ball was not the most talented player in this draft class, according to most scouts and analysts. He was certainly not the best player in college basketball, according to coaches and award voters. UCLA was not the best team in the country, as evidenced by their Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky.
Yet Lonzo Ball was far-and-away the most talked about player leading up to the NBA Draft.
Consider the first overall pick: Markelle Fultz. He suffered the same disadvantage in the west-coast at Washington University. He was widely considered the No. 1 pick from the beginning of the season.
Yet the media coverage was silent.
Fultz “thought about” signing with the Big Baller Brand, but stated “I was raised to be respectful, cordial, not loud.” Certainly a smart decision by Fultz, as his personality and image do not align with that of the Big Baller Brand.
This down-to-earth, respectable demeanor is more enthusiastically accepted by society. It doesn’t create a stir and it doesn’t disturb the peace, as this humble outlook is a common and comfortable American tale.
This is precisely why the second overall pick was a household name and the first overall pick was commonly unrecognizable.
LaVar stirred the pot, threatened regularity and challenged the industry.
And as a result, the Big Baller Brand is (relatively) on the map and in a better position to compete against Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.
The Los Angeles Lakers are undeniably the mightiest brand in basketball, and perhaps in all of sports – rivaling the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys.
Pertaining to recognition and association, this makes the transition to the NBA seamless for Lonzo Ball.
Consider Anthony Davis in New Orleans. His play is dominant and exciting… but he plays for the Pelicans. Sure, if the Pelicans were a bit more successful or had stronger brand equity, he would receive more endorsements and acknowledgement. But that’s quite the uphill battle.
When Anthony Davis puts on a Pelicans uniform, even the most knowledgeable and passionate sports fans don’t sense any alternative connection, except maybe their original mascot that horrified little children.
When Lonzo Ball puts on his Lakers uniform, we will see it all.
We will see “The Logo,” Jerry West. We will see Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers with Magic, Kareem, and Worthy. We will see Kobe and Shaq. We will see the championships. We will see the courtside celebrities. We will envision Hollywood.
Lonzo Ball, or any budding superstar, is fortunate to play for an organization with that much recognition and positive associations.
If he fulfills his potential and becomes a perennial all-star, the Big Baller Brand will not have a difficult time succeeding. The sponsorships, the endorsements, and the “household name” status will all flow smoothly with the on-court success.
This point is a bit overstated, but it is still worth mentioning.
As aforementioned, LaVar and the Ball family disrupted the natural order. This strategy will be met with boundless polarization. A few will love and praise this unique undertaking. Many will despise it and root for its failure.
Nike executive George Raveling stated that LaVar Ball is “The worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years.”
Stephen A. Smith was beside himself when LaVar joined ESPN’s First Take, claiming that there was something wrong with him – psychologically, emotionally or otherwise.
Current NBA players, like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, are already chomping at the bit:
Making enemies in a competitive and entertainment-driven industry is not a bad thing. But there is undoubtedly a target on Lonzo’s back. And considering the unlimited exposure being a Los Angeles Laker presents, there will be a great deal of pressure on Lonzo Ball from the outset.
Pressure creates diamonds, but it can also burst pipes.
Only time will tell how playing under a microscope will influence Lonzo Ball. But because of his father, NBA players will be circling the Lakers on their schedule, the media will be quick to criticize, and the general public will be unapologetically unforgiving.
This is my biggest concern.
One critical part of branding is managing perception. For any business, this is ensuring that essential organizational qualities are exuded through communication channels and that these messages are received and appropriately interpreted by the general public.
Take the Ford Motor Company for example. The common consumer may associate Ford with affordability, prideful American design and production, and reliability.
The other part of branding relates to one’s story, which inevitably feeds into the management of perception.
Ford’s story pertains to vital organizational characteristics such as American patriotism and blue-collar lifestyles. These are properly addressed to their target market, particularly for their pickup truck series. This story funnels into their marketing and advertising initiatives, which is received by the public and forms its perception.
For a professional athlete, this is no different. Athletes themselves are brands.
The common story told in sports is that of the underdog. We see it fictional movies such as Rocky, and successful nonfictional movies like Miracle.
This tale lays at the foundation of this country. Part of the American Dream itself applies to having equal opportunities for prosperity, despite one’s socioeconomic upbringing. Overcoming adversity is almost a rite of passage for American icons.
Even President Donald Trump finessed part of his campaign to signify this same national message, despite the perception of elitism:
“My whole life really has been a ‘no’ and I fought through it,” Trump said Monday at an NBC-sponsored town hall here. “It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”
This is not a political comment, rather an observation of how Americans connect to this underdog mentality, even if it may not be applicable.
Personally, my favorite example of this in sports is Derrick Rose’s Powerade commercial.
A Chicago native himself, Derrick Rose was recovering from yet another injury with the Chicago Bulls. At the time, Chicago was the nation’s murder capital, consistently in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Utilizing a Tupac Shakur poem and voiceover (which cleverly tied Rose’s surname with the theme of the poem), the message of overcoming adversity and persevering through hardships permeates with every scene.
This commercial associated Derrick Rose’s recovery with the poverty and violence in his home city, in addition to a voiceover (and poem) from an icon who experienced similar upbringings. This advertisement personifies The American Dream perfectly, with an appropriate twist of pop-culture, which is why it remains one of my favorite videos.
Now back to Lonzo Ball. What’s his story?
Given the price point of their first line of sneakers (BBB’s ZO2 for $495), it most certainly doesn’t connect with this theme. And when considering LaVar Ball’s tweet on the subject, it all but confirms their stance:
Taking an elitist approach to the basketball sneaker game is a dangerous approach when one’s only signed athlete has yet to play a game.
The Jordan brand has the right to take this approach. Michael Jordan and his signed athletes have achieved the on-court success necessary to warrant the price points. Pair that with Michael Jordan’s exclusivity and legendary aura, and it makes a-whole-lot-of sense.
In addition, Michael Jordan – or anyone associated with his brand – would never belittle those who couldn’t afford his sneakers. That’s too elitist, even for the greatest of all time.
The Big Baller Brand has an undeserved level of arrogance and entitlement. That is my perception, based off of their apparent story.
Granted, not every athlete personifies the same underdog message.
Kobe Bryant’s story was about work-ethic. Allen Iverson was all about individualism; doing things his own way. LeBron James bounces around from “just being a kid from Akron” to “The Chosen One.” Kevin Durant just wants to silence his critics, apparently.
I struggle to take similar positive characteristics from the BBB story, especially when it’s the father doing the work, and the actual product standing in the corner.
With all of these evaluations, one thing remains constant:
Lonzo Ball’s on-court performance will ultimately dictate the success of the Big Baller Brand. It will be the difference between Black Friday frenzies and TJ Maxx’s clearance section.
The BBB is innovative and risky. Polarizing and captivating. Brilliant and idiotic.
Only time will tell if it is a success or a failure.
Be sure to check out other articles here on NM Sports.