How Big Baller Brand Was Saved by a Skechers-Funded Sneaker Start-Up

When Big Baller Brand needed help, it turned to Brandblack—and its design offshoot Santa Ana—to make its signature sneakers.

Back in July, Lakers rookie and second overall draft pick Lonzo Ball took home the NBA Summer League’s MVP Award, after putting up some gaudy statistics. But more intriguing was his sneaker stat split: In the two games Ball wore his own signature sneaker, the $495 Big Baller Brand ZO2 ($995 if you want his signature), he averaged just eight points. But when he laced up in anything else—like James Harden’s signature Adidas kicks and the Jordan 31—Ball dropped MVP-grade numbers. Plenty started whispering, “It’s gotta be the shoes,” but not in the good way when it came to Zo’s signature sneakers.

The ZO2s emerged only after Lonzo’s father, Lavar Ball, declined to pursue deals with the three biggest sneakers brands in basketball—Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour—on the grounds that each wasn’t offering enough money. For Lavar, enough meant $3 billion, three times the reported worth of LeBron James’s lifetime Nike contract. The Balls decided to go it alone, independently producing the BBB ZO2, and charging almost four times the going rate for most signature sneakers around the league. The ZO2s were available by pre-order in May and slated for a November delivery, and Lavar Ball implied on ESPN’s The Herd on May 8 that the brand had sold 495 pairs of ZO2s. (Sneaker site Nice Kicks put the number at closer to 263, while a week later the LA Times totaled 356 pairs sold by using Big Baller Brand’s website source data.) That’s not half bad for a first-time brand selling $500 kicks in a crowded space—but not exactly putting fear in the hearts of Nike or Adidas. So it was fair to ask why Lonzo’s father/hypeman Lavar had created the ZO2s in the first place. Was he serious about taking on the establishment? Or were the shoes just a ploy to get the Nikes and Adidases of the world to up their offers? Why would Lonzo be wearing other brands’ sneakers at all if BBB was truly serious about making waves in the industry?

The answer might be that Lonzo was just been doing some product research to find out which design elements to bring to own kicks. In September, BBB announced that it had re-designed the ZO2 sneaker, and unveiled much sleeker model dubbed the “ZO2: Prime Remix.” Lonzo Ball has worn them in every game so far during the regular season, and the results have been, according to most NBA analysts, okay so far. (At the time of this writing Lonzo had averages of 9.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game.) But this time around, Big Baller Brand had help from an unlikely partner in crafting the better-looking kicks.


The story of Lonzo Ball’s remixed signature shoe starts with his little brother’s. On August 31, Big Baller Brand released the Melo Ball 1, a sneaker hailed by BBB as the first-ever signature sneaker for a high school athlete (Lonzo’s 16-year-old brother, LaMelo). As commenters began to speculate on the eligibility implications of a student with his own sneaker, sneakerheads took notice of the the similarities between the Melo 1 and another shoe, from the shape of the shoe to the sole to the pattern on the upper: the Rare Metal, from upstart Brandblack. That same day, Wear Testers, a site dedicated to rigorously testing basketball sneakers, reported that this wasn’t an act of design theft, but of collaboration between an extension of Brandblack and Big Baller Brand. But if either party was trying to hide the fact that the two brands had teamed up, they didn’t do a very good job: if you look closely at the side of the ZO2 Remix, which debuted just three weeks after the Melo 1, you’ll see a print that reads “Santa Ana”—the name of a design consultancy started in August 2017 by Brandblack founder David Raysse and creative director Billy Dill.

Brandblack has only been around for three and a half years, but it’s had the backing of one of the biggest sneaker brands on the planet, Skechers, since its inception. The label was founded by Raysse, a Skechers executive who was the director of Adidas Basketball in the late 90s. The ZO2 isn’t Brandblack’s first go-around in the NBA signature sneaker space—it designed signature sneakers for Jamal Crawford until 2016. Brandblack does not currently make sneakers for any NBA athletes, but it’s broadened its business elsewhere: In late 2014, the brand expanded into apparel, and its products are sold at streetwear meccas like Kith and Union.

And then last July, Dill says he got an email from someone he describes as a “partner within the Big Baller Brand business.” After some back and forth, the two brands formed a partnership, citing shared values. “These guys are trying to do it in a different way than the big two, and in a lot of ways that’s similar to our story,” says Dill. (Lavar Ball did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

But rather than turn Big Baller Brand’s sneakers into an official collaboration with Brandblack (effectively turning the kicks into the...BBBBBs), Raysse and Dill decided to start Santa Ana Design, a design offshoot, to give Big Baller Brand its own identity, while also retaining the ability to collaborate with other brands in the future. Raysse compares the relationship between Santa Ana Design and BBB to the way Ferraris used to outsource the design of its cars to a company called Pininfarina.

The partnershipship hasn’t stopped hot-take Twitter users from knocking Big Baller Brand sneakers as nothing more than extra-expensive Skechers. But Raysse, despite admitting that the Melo Ball 1 and ZO2 both use elements of the Rare Metal in their design, describes the relationship between Skechers and Brandblack, and by proxy between Skechers and Santa Ana Design, as one between a venture capital firm and a company it’s invested in. Raysse is adamant that Skechers has nothing to do with what goes on at Brandblack—other than making sure the company is profitable.

Raysse also makes clear that what Brandblack’s production of original basketball shoes—including, beyond Big Baller Brand, shoes like its own new Delta style—wouldn’t be possible without Skechers’ deep pockets. “The difference between a fashion sneaker brand and a performance sneaker brand is that the economies of scale are insanely different,” says Raysse. Buying molds to manufacture a new sneaker sole, he says, can cost $15,000, which is why there are so many sneaker start-up brands out there all pulling from the same stock of simple, flat soles. Producing basketball sneakers from the ground up, without the factories and know-how that the bigger guys have spent decades refining, is a lot harder than most people think: that’s why there are precious few challengers to brands like Nike and Adidas—and why Big Baller Brand didn’t have much of a chance until they partnered with a company like Santa Ana Design.


Raysse and Dill say they can do better than Big Baller Brand’s Melo Ball 1 and ZO2 models. The sneakers—and their resemblance to the Rare Metals—are the result of time constraints and compromise. “When they told us we had to adhere to their original delivery date of November 2017, there was just no way we were going to be able to develop an entirely new product from the ground up,” says Raysse. And when asked about Big Baller Brand’s pricing—$495 for the ZO2 and $395 for the Melo Ball 1—Raysse says that those decisions were made by Big Baller Brand alone. That said, he notes that the ZO2 features premium upgrades from the Rare Metal sneaker: a new mesh upper and a carbon fiber heel plate, which costs them eight dollars per shoe in manufacturing. (Raysse and Dill both declined to comment on the structure of their business relationship with BBB.)

The $495 price tag of the ZO2s probably made sense when Lavar and Co. were going it alone, and had to shell out thousands of dollars a pop for individual sole molds. But now that they’ve got the backing of a global sneaker company that brought in over $3.5 billion in revenue in 2016, the us-against-the-world attitude Lavar has been cultivating seems questionable. Then again, if you’re going to take on Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour, it’s probably best to be bold. Whether or not more than a few hundred people will shell out $500 for sneakers made for a rookie is a different question entirely—but now, that price looks like it could be more a marketing move designed to raise eyebrows and generate publicity than to recoup startup costs for a fledgling sneaker brand. And if there’s one area where Lavar Ball has real talent, it’s at generating publicity.

This just the beginning of Big Baller Brand and Santa Ana Design’s partnership. According to Raysse and Dill, Lonzo Ball’s second signature sneaker, which was developed from scratch, is almost done. Details are sparse right now, but Raysse and Dill note that when developing the new shoe, they paid close attention to things like Lonzo’s toe drag—something an untrained sneaker designer might not have picked up on. “He’s constantly moving it around the court, and it’s something we’re working on with him,” Dill says. “He effectively needs like a tennis shoe toe on his shoe because he drags his toe just like a tennis player,” Raysse adds. And while no one but the Santa Ana Design and Big Baller Brand teams have seen the new shoe yet, Raysse and Dill’s confidence in the product is, well, plentiful. “If I may be so bold, it is...FUCKING...FIRE,” Raysse says. Lavar Ball may have turned to Santa Ana for help on his son’s sneakers, but it seems as if his bragadocious spirit is rubbing off.