LaVar Ball’s bid to leverage the basketball exploits of his three sons – Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo, UCLA freshman LiAngelo and high-school phenom LaMelo – into business success hit a setback this week after LiAngelo and two of his teammates were caught shoplifting in China.
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LiAngelo, 19, is facing an indefinite suspension at UCLA after his detention by Chinese authorities became an international incident in which President Donald Trump personally intervened. Meanwhile, LaVar Ball, the outspoken family patriarch and founder of the “Big Baller Brand,” was uncharacteristically mum on the situation.
The shoplifting incident threatens to undo the early success of Ball’s unconventional approach to athlete marketing, which had already yielded a Facebook reality show based on the family’s life and appearances on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and WWE.
“I think everyone involved with the Ball family would agree this is a critical time for the brand, given that Lonzo is just starting his NBA career and his brother is just beginning his time at UCLA. So there couldn’t have been a worse time for the incident,” said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing expert and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Known for his brash demeanor and bold predictions, LaVar Ball has routinely touted his sons as future NBA stars. Lonzo, 20, was selected in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, but has struggled to find his shooting form in the early days of the 2017-18 season. Through 15 games, Lonzo is shooting just 30.3% from the field and averaging just 9.0 points per game.
The Ball family is betting heavily that they will succeed at the NBA level. LiAngelo, 18, was a three-star recruit in high school before committing to play at UCLA, while LaMelo, 16, was a four-star recruit until LaVar pulled him out of Chino Hills High School in California to be home-schooled.
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LaVar infamously eschewed apparel deals for Lonzo with Nike, Adidas and Under Armour after none of them matched his $1 billion price tag.
“A billion dollars, it has to be there,” LaVar told USA Today last March. “That’s our number, a billion, straight out of the gate. And you don’t even have to give it to me all up front. Give us $100 mil over 10 years.”
Instead, the Big Baller Brand is selling sneakers for anywhere from $395 to nearly $1,200 per pair on its website – a move that polarized industry pundits.
So far, the family’s unique approach has resonated with fans. The premiere episode of “Ball In The Family,” the Facebook reality series based on the family’s exploits, has drawn 26.3 million views to date, though subsequent episodes were significantly less popular.
“Generally speaking, I think even before the China situation that consumer fatigue was setting in with the Ball family brand,” said Shawn McBride, an executive vice president at Ketchum Sports and Entertainment. “While LaVar has smartly leveraged the spotlight to launch Big Baller Brand, his showmanship style and brash approach will wear thin very quickly in the face of adversity, such as subpar performance, as Lonzo is facing, or controversy, such as this current situation with LiAngelo.”
Facebook declined to comment on the UCLA shoplifting incident, which took place before the Pac-12’s annual contest in China.
Even before his arrest, LiAngelo was considered to have a marginal chance at success as a professional basketball player. To regain momentum as a brand, LiAngelo will have to return to the court and succeed at UCLA, while Lonzo will have to find his form with the Lakers, according to Jensen.
“If both become NBA stars, the incident will be long forgotten in a couple of years,” Jensen said.