September 13, 2017

Material Matters: Big Baller Brand, Seriously?

The last few weeks have seen the Big Baller Brand media circus snowball into a powerful movement. For better or (most likely) worse, the Ball fam’ are shaking up the world of footwear marketing with a Kardashian-esque grab for attention. Much as we enjoy watching the whole thing unravel, we can’t help but lament over the actual sneaker designs themselves. With an NBA salary to play with, it would have been nice to see a little R&D – by which we mean Research and Development, rather than Rip-off and Distribute. So far we haven’t seen anything that’s likely to make people run out and buy the shoes for pure style points, so it’s hard to see what the game plan is for BBB.

Luckily, not all sneaker brands start out like this. Even some of the juggernauts that dominate the industry now came from humble beginnings. Perhaps their creative thinking and eventual success even came as a result of their struggle. Nike gained traction when Bill Bowerman poured rubber into a waffle iron to create the waffle sole. Paul Sperry revolutionised maritime footwear with a razor blade and a slab of rubber. New Balance started with one guy, William J. Riley, selling arch supports out of a briefcase. PUMA and adidas are the result of a falling out between brothers. In fact, it almost seems like the smaller the beginning, the bigger the brand. That is, until you start to dig a little deeper.

Have you ever heard of the Aero Shoe Corporation, Scats, Tred2, Autry, Sako, Osaga or Inter? We could go on (and on), but the point is that throughout the 70s and 80s those names belonged to sneaker brands trying to make it big. That has to be a confronting thought for anyone who fancies themselves as the next Phil Knight (we’re looking at you LaVar) – but what makes it even scarier is that some of these forgotten brands had really good ideas. Many of their innovations are even still around today, long after their names have been forgotten.

The same year that New Balance introduced their Motion Control Device, Jordache were equipping their Ultimate with a similar heel stabiliser. It’s probably unfortunate that the brand was so successful as a denim manufacturer, seeing as how nobody seemed to take much notice of their athletic tryst. Avia’s cantilever flex lug designs provided such a simple and effective system of cushioning, but their patent also proved to be fairly easy to work around; you can flip over plenty of running shoes from the 80s and see how different brands ran with the idea. Most notable today is the adidas Tubular: though it looks a bit different, the cradling sensation it provides the foot is based on much the same principle.

Bauer were originally a family-owned company, and though it’s been through various corporate holding over the last few decades, the ice skate manufacturer would hardly be considered as a major player in the running shoe game. Nevertheless, Bauer were responsible for perhaps one of the biggest lacing system innovations ever, the ‘bear hug’. It’s comprised of a panel running from the heel to the top eyelet that pulls the rear of the shoe in snug. It might not sound like much – until you look back and realise how many shoes have since featured a similar design (EQT, Dunk, for example). In fact, it’s almost a ubiquitous element of footwear now.

It seems like having a great design idea isn’t enough in and of itself to guarantee success, and Finnish brand Karhu might be the best example of this. Karhu are still kicking about today with a small yet healthy range of casual styles and a contemporary performance offering – but imagine knowing that you were the first company to ever use air to cushion a shoe, and then imagine seeing Nike’s success with that same concept. That’s right, Karhu did it first. For a while they even marketed themselves as ‘the running on air shoe’. To make matters worse, in the 1940s Karhu owned the trademark to the Three Stripes logo, before they decided to sell it to adidas. The obscure Scandinavian brand had the jump on two of the most iconic elements in the sneaker industry and they let them both go.

Big Baller Brand seem to be pegging most of their future on the simple fact that they have a superstar player, Lonzo. It’s bound to help, but consider the situation for Under Armour with Steph Curry’s third signature shoe. Under Armour backed the shoe pretty hard, and it played well on court, but when it hit the stores it stayed on the shelves. There were too many colourways, there was no hype and it was too expensive – but many have suggested that the biggest mistake Under Armour made was attempting to compete head-to-head with Nike. Though it’s yet to be defined where BBB place themselves in the market, it’s clear that they have a score to settle with the Swoosh.

Big Baller Brand, we aren’t quite sure what you’re playing at, but it’s either genius or insanity. Whichever way it lands, we have no doubt that you’ll continue making headlines and we’re looking forward to every minute of it.

Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Reservations on Elevation,  Fables of The Forgotten and A Brief History of Yeezy.

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