Lavar Ball might be the most obnoxious guy in sports – a carnival barker who has assured the world he has nothing but the best of intentions for his sons and their basketball dreams.
He might also be a modern-day Earl Woods or Richard Williams, a Black father whose force of personality propels his sons to HOF status.
But Ball’s real legacy could be that he was the guy who obliterated the NCAA’s monopoly on free, young basketball talent and its ability to use arcane eligibility rules to force players to forego compensation.
LaVar’s ‘League of His Own’
This week, Ball proposed launching the ‘Junior Basketball Association.’ The league would allow former high school players to skip college and make as much as $10,000 per month showcasing their talent for NBA scouts.
That’s the plan.
The announcement was big on Ball’s trademark bluster but short on details:
- How many teams will there be?
- How long is the season?
- How much money would Ball need to raise, and what sponsors, other than Big Baller Brand, would foot that bill?
Despite the countless questions, it is important to point out that Ball can’t be discounted. He sucks up more of sports media’s oxygen than any non-athlete – merely by opening his mouth.
All He Does Is Win
He demanded an absurd billion-dollar shoe deal for his eldest son, Lonzo, before he was even drafted by the Lakers. Then, he opted to take his company, Big Baller Brand, independent and sold thousands of pairs of the company’s first sneaker at $500 a pop.
He pulled his youngest son, LaMelo, out of high school in favor of homeschooling and made ESPN and Fox Sports care. When middle child LiAngelo was caught up in an international incident over some Louis Vuitton bags, LaVar parlayed the situation into time on Donald Trump’s infamous Twitter feed. (He would later appear on CNN in a 22-minute interview that went viral).
Ball is a nightmare client for any publicist, but as an independent marketer, all he does is win.
He’s a classic disrupter who, with little money and no basketball accolades of his own, figured out that sports fans want a break from corporate monopolies. From the Fab Five’s baggy shorts to the tastemaking influence of All-Star Weekend, basketball owes three decades of growth as much to the ‘culture’ as it does to NBA stars.
But while sneaker culture, hip-hop and sports event marketing were dominated by entrepreneurs with guerilla tactics in the 80s and 90s, this millennium ceded that territory to Nike collaborations and IMG-vetted guest lists.
LaVar Ball’s brilliance is in his subversion of the basketball, media and apparel establishments. Now, the NCAA – whose monopoly on young basketball talent is screaming for a challenge – has his attention.
High School Players Need Better Options
Under today’s rules, prospects must be one year removed from high school before being eligible for the NBA draft. This means risking injury and potentially contributing to the NCAA’s nearly $1 billion annual revenue while being compensated with only scholarships and per diem money.
Those scholarships sound like a great deal compared with the thousands of students whose families struggle to keep up with tuition increases. Far more of those other students, however, actually graduate with degrees.
The NCAA has a persistent gap in graduation rates between black and white elite players. Last year, the cumulative graduation success rate of black players at Division I schools was 77 percent, compared with 93 percent of white players, according to the annual report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport.
There are ways around the NCAA monopoly, and LaVar Ball fired a shot last month by pulling LaMelo and LiAngelo out of their commitments to UCLA (LiAngelo was already suspended and may have never played again anyway) in favor of pro deals with a Lithuanian team.
Most high school kids trying to get to the NBA don’t have LaVar Ball for a father and the future of the Los Angeles Lakers for a big brother. They don’t have the guerilla marketing cachet of Big Baller Brand to carry them, and Ball knows this. He sees the attraction those kids have to getting an advocate like him in their corner, plus potentially $10,000 a month to boot.
So once again, he’s disrupting.
There’s no guarantee that he’ll be successful. Ball’s proposed league may never get off the ground. The NCAA has gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain its control over the market for young athletes after high school. It has a long bankroll thanks to enormous TV deals and a staff of lobbyists and regulators at its disposal. Breaking that kind of power won’t be as easy as yelling at Stephen A. Smith until you sell a few pairs of sneakers.
But right now, betting on Ball doesn’t sound like a bad investment.