Inside Lonzo Ball's pursuit of an unprecedented shoe deal

Nick DePaulaThe Vertical
Lonzo Ball is expected to be a very high draft pick. (AP)
Lonzo Ball is expected to be a very high draft pick. (AP)

With the NBA draft on June 22, top prospects and athletic brands are beginning to engage in conversations about potential footwear and apparel endorsement deals. One of the players expected to be drafted at the very top of the board is UCLA star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball. He is represented by Harrison Gaines as part of the newly formed Ball Sports Group. Gaines is a former employee at Impact Sports, where he worked alongside primary agents on contracts for NBA players Kawhi Leonard and Will Barton. Ball is also being represented in brand negotiations by Ball Sports Group’s founder – his outspoken father, LaVar – sources told The Vertical.

Lonzo has received preliminary interest over the past year from the three current major sneaker brands outfitting NBA players: Nike, adidas and Under Armour. None of the brands have expressed a direct interest in LaVar’s “co-branding partnership” concept, which would license the family’s Big Baller Brand for Lonzo’s footwear to then be manufactured by a partner, multiple industry sources told The Vertical.

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So far, Big Baller Brand has primarily sold screen-printed T-shirts, sweatshirts and embroidered hats on its web store, with prices ranging from $50-$100 per piece. The brand is targeting the $200 tier for its debut Big Baller Brand basketball sneaker, an industry source told The Vertical, which would presumably be Lonzo’s signature shoe for his rookie season. LaVar and associate Alan Foster reportedly have been developing the shoe over the past year.

Should Lonzo not reach an endorsement deal with any footwear brand and instead wear the family’s inaugural Big Baller Brand sneaker, it would be a first for a potential top-five selection. There’s no denying that LaVar’s push for a co-branded partnership with potential major brands has stifled what would otherwise be a highly competitive market for Lonzo, an industry source told The Vertical.

Were the Balls aiming for a traditional endorsement deal they would be looking at a four-year shoe contract worth up to $1.5 million annually, a source told The Vertical. “Kris Dunn got that last year, and [Lonzo is] younger and [better],” the source said.

Adidas, which sponsored UCLA this past season along with the Chino Hills (Calif.) High School basketball team that features younger Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo, has yet to formally discuss a shoe deal with Ball Sports Group. “It’s not dead yet,” a brand source told The Vertical. An official meeting would potentially take place in the coming weeks, with the brand not yet ruling out making a standard endorsement offer.

While longtime Nike Basketball executive George Raveling recently dubbed LaVar “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years,” company CEO Phil Knight confirmed his brand’s “interest” in the one-and-done point guard earlier this spring. Nike sports marketing reps were seen often in Southern California, and attended Chino Hills games seated alongside LaVar. Still, the brand hasn’t looked to make an official offer after Lonzo officially declared for the draft.

Under Armour is beginning a 15-year, $280 million deal with UCLA, where LiAngelo will enroll this fall. LaMelo is verbally committed to the Bruins as well. A brand rep for the Baltimore-based company had an informal lunch meeting in Los Angeles with LaVar and his wife, Tina, this past December, industry sources told The Vertical, but didn’t pursue any further discussions. The brand also doesn’t plan to formally pitch Ball Sports Group on a deal for Lonzo this spring.

In addition to discussions with U.S. brands, Ball’s representatives have also reached out to Chinese-based companies, with introductory phone conversations scheduled for next week, sources told The Vertical. Historically, Chinese brands have been less interested in signing incoming rookies. Li-Ning struck out after signing former No. 2 overall picks Evan Turner (2010) and Hasheem Thabeet (2009), while Anta and Peak have yet to sign a rookie.

They’ve instead preferred to sign rising players such as Klay Thompson, George Hill and Chandler Parsons after their rookie shoe deals expired, or past-their-prime, accomplished stars such as Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Rajon Rondo.

As the spring unfolds and formal shoe-deal meetings begin to take place, two key dates are the league’s draft lottery on May 16 and the NBA draft. Brands will typically wait until the lottery order is set, so that large-market teams such as the Lakers and Knicks have their draft slots determined. (If their selection falls outside of the top three, the Lakers would lose their pick to Philadelphia.)

Once the draft order is set, brands will look to sign players before the draft, with bonus language often included in contracts should a player be selected by a “priority market” or “featured team.” A “$150,000 kicker” can be included for lottery picks that land in key markets such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago or Philadelphia, or on competitive teams that are “a playoff lock for the next four years,” such as the Houston Rockets, a brand source told The Vertical. An NBA Rookie of the Year bonus can also be added, with a “$250,000 kicker” common for incoming players.

With Ball Sports Group leading the charge for Lonzo Ball’s endorsement negotiations, things will be different. Whichever course the fledgling brand ends up choosing, you can bet it will find a way to make a splash.

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