[30 November 2006]
The year was 1989. Tim Burton’s Batman was in theaters, Young MC’s “Bust a Move” was on radios, and the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan was everywhere else. It was a time just prior to the many championships that Jordan would help his team win during the ‘90s, but he had already captured the limelight as the league’s newest and most marketable superstar. Averaging better than 30 points a game, Jordan stood poised to replace the likes of Magic and Bird as the premiere NBA player, a poster boy for the sport as well as for a whole host of other products.
Not the least of these was Nike shoes. Signing Jordan as a rookie, the shoe giant developed a brand of red and black “Air Jordan” sneakers around his tremendously successful image. Both the player and the company reaped a whirlwind of profit as kids everywhere clamored to “be like Mike”—long before the Gatorade tag line had even hit the airwaves. Jordan and the Swoosh were seen teaming up in magazine ads, posters, and on televisions and billboards across the country. Then, in 1989, this dynamically successful pair was joined by a third member.
Mars Blackmon, a diminutive, bespectacled bike messenger played by Spike Lee, was added to the mix. Originally appearing in Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It, Blackmon was now seen in stylish black and white ads, looking on in awe as Jordan performed spectacular shots, dunks, and maneuvers. The bulk of the ads saw Blackmon trying to figure out just what allowed His Air-ness to master gravity and outshine his opponents so effortlessly. Blackmon’s number one suspicion? “It’s gotta be the shoes.”
The catch phrase took off. With Lee and Jordan teaming up in a series of successful ads, Jordan’s popularity only intensified, as did the value of his sneakers. Apparently, it seemed that Blackmon was on to something, as Air Jordans became the premiere sneaker to have. I, myself, must confess to looking on with envy as the rich kids at my junior high school strolled smugly by in their tightly rolled, acid-washed jeans and a pair of bright, unscuffed Jordans. My feelings, however, were far from unique. Costing more than $100 (or more) in 1989, the shoes became a new marker of status among sneaker-wearers. And while some, like me, could only look on with thinly veiled jealousy at the Jordan-haves, other Jordan have-nots began to take a more proactive approach to improving their wardrobe. Thefts, assaults, even occasional murders were reported as resulting from conflicts over the shoes. Being killed for one’s Jordans, in fact, came to represent a new watermark in “inner city” (read African American) violence and moral degradation. While murder and theft were nothing necessarily new to urban centers—long neglected by Reagan & Bush the Elder’s institutional neglect of social services—the projects now became a more visible problem for the rest of the country in the wake of sensational reporting of these senseless crimes.
For their part, both Jordan and Lee dismissed allegations that the sneakers were to blame for the violence. Though the Mars Blackmon campaign eventually did draw to a close, this was more to make room for new sales strategies than to placate critics. In fact, in the years since Air Jordans became the shoe to have, other companies have sought to emulate Nike’s business model, rather than try to change it. Shaquille O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Dwayne Wade, and other NBA stars have launched their own personalized brand of sneakers with companies like Adidas, And One, and Reebok. Each have sought to parley their on-court success into marketing gold by pedaling the latest in footwear fashion to an audience constantly on the lookout for the next new thing.
Jordan and Nike’s trend, in fact, has continued unabated in the shoe world for the past 17 years. That is, until now. Enter New York Knicks’ guard Stephon Marbury, whose recent launch of his “Starbury” brand sneaker and clothing line position him, in many respects, as the anti-Michael Jordan. To begin with, Marbury’s shoe, the “Starbury One”, costs just $14.98. Any additional selection of hoodies, jerseys, warm-ups, and t-shirts will put you out of pocket a mere $9.98 each. Even by 1989 standards, Marbury’s practically giving his gear away. Then there’s the company behind the products. The line itself is put out by a relative newcomer to the athletic fashion market, a company that goes by the provincial moniker of “Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear”. Nike and Jordan, to put it mildly, this ain’t.
Those who have followed Marbury’s pro tenure might see this as simply another in a series of detours from the kind of grandiose achievement that marked Jordan’s career. Rather than racking up championships for one team, Marbury has bounced around the league from Minnesota to New Jersey to Phoenix, and now to the Knicks. He has yet to win a championship with any of them, nor even make much of a name for himself in the playoffs. Though highly touted as a collegiate standout at Georgia Tech, the same success has not translated, by and large, to the pro level. He’s been a frustrated and a frustrating talent to watch: capable of great bursts of ball handling, quickness, and court vision, but has also been saddled with the “gangsta” label for his public dissention from this coaches and his penchant for shooting before passing. As a result, while Jordan was a poster boy for corporate success, Marbury’s been cast as the kind of spoiled, selfish pro athlete that so many fans and media members are eager to excoriate.
But Marbury’s break from Jordan’s mold is not entirely negative. Take his endorsement deal, for example. Unlike other players, whose salesmanship money often meets or exceeds their regular salary, Marbury has agreed to work with Steven and Barry’s on a strictly profit-based system, eschewing any up front endorsement fees for a cut of the actual sales figures. In that sense, he’s committing to his brand in a way no other player has done in the past. In addition, he’s quick to point out that an off-the rack version of “Starbury One” shoes are the ones he wears on the court. Most players, by contrast, wear specially tailored shoes (maybe once or twice before trading them in for a new pair), ensuring that fans and fashionistas will never be able to have the same experience, even if the labels on their feet match. Clearly, Marbury has taken pains to endorse his product in ways previously unheard of among professional players. Not only are they being made more available as a result of the lower prices, but Starburys are backed by a player who is staking his reputation on them.
A quick glance at the product line’s website reveals just how committed Marbury is to the idea of affordable footwear for a wider audience. Advertising “maximum shine for minimum expense”, the site puts the product line into a whole new context. Rather than something to buy, the clothing launch is cast as the “Starbury movement”, a kind of revolution against the status quo that dominates corporate sports fashion. Moreover, the site insists to visitors that, “Together we are changing the world”, indicating that, by buying Starburys, one is buying into a whole different system of thought.
Naturally, there are plenty of cynics who might see this as simply a ploy to attract attention in an already saturated market. What better way to earn street cred than by dissing the very industry you’re setting out to succeed in? And, despite all the positioning to the contrary, it’s far from clear whose idea this really is. Was Marbury entirely responsible for the concept? Or did his agent just happen to have a good meeting with Steven and Barry’s people?
Motivations and origins aside, however, the implications of the Starbury movement remain huge. Not only does the brand threaten to reverse the legacy of the way sports apparel is priced, marketed, and consumed, but it also acknowledges a subtle yet crucial shift within the market. Starburys are aimed at more than the fashion conscious; they’re also aimed at the socially conscious. Nike, for its part, has long been tied to allegations of sweatshops and shoddy labor practices, with $100+ shoes being compared to the pennies a day given to the unfortunate worker who makes them. By refusing such a radical mark-up, Marbury and company are really pointing out just how ridiculous the existing pricing model is to begin with. After all, though 15 bucks is cheap, Steven and Barry aren’t giving the shoes away entirely. One has to assume that there is some measure of profit, however small, in the sale of a pair of Starburys. And if that’s true, the profits for a pair of Nikes or Reeboks (whose production costs must be equal or even lesser) seem bloated beyond all reason. And this new line is pointing just that fact out to a market comprised of increasingly responsible consumers. In the wake of hybrid cars and organic foods, fan-friendly shoes represent another step toward equity and, importantly, a step away from outrageous corporate profiteering.
For Marbury, himself, it’s also a way to reinvent his tarnished image. After all, what else is a marketing campaign for? Asked to explain Marbury for their choice of spokesman, Steve & Barry’s chief partnership officer, Howard Schacter, admitted that, among other things, “we also came to quickly learn he has a credibility, a street credibility.” And in the world of the NBA, credibility is essential. From seats to sport drinks to sneakers, a player must have cred to be a successful pitchman. While Marbury may not have had the most stellar pro career to date, one thing he can point to is well-documented career of “keeping it real”. Brought up in the projects of Coney Island, New York, he was the youngest of a family who sent several older brothers and cousins to collegiate basketball programs. Stephon, however, was the only one who made it to the NBA.
To get there, he struggled with poverty and violence, enduring a plight that’s best documented by author Darcy Frey in his book The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams. Frey met Marbury as a high school freshman, and documented the hype and hardships he had to face long before making it to college, much less the NBA. Consequently, when Marbury is quoted as saying “Two hundred to buy a pair of sneakers, that’s groceries for the week”, it’s clear that his priorities stem from first-hand experience with economic strife.
And this, in essence, is what makes him such a powerful spokesman for such a potentially radical product. In the days where ice and bling rule, when rims are prized more than savings accounts, Marbury offers a dramatic refiguring of fiscal practicality. Of course, it might be nice to rock a diamond grill or chinchilla wrap, but Starburys are clothes made to fit a budget, rather than for conspicuous consumption. In this sense, Marbury becomes a kind of Robin Hood. It’s not that he’s robbing from the rich, though, it’s that he’s purposely notrobbing consumers. He’s also publicly recognizing that the NBA’s fan base includes a percentage of people who aren’t able to spring for the newest Nikes every time they hit stores. Instead, they have more pressing things to spend their money on.
And this recognition might be the most radical of all, going against league commissioner David Stern who has a history of institutionalizing a particular sensitivity to middle and upper class (read white) fans of the NBA. By making players wear suits when traveling, for example, Stern backhandedly acknowledges that the jewelry and do-rags that some players prefer to wear activates too much gangsta-tinged anxiety among the delicate, but wealthy, portion of his audience. You know—the ones that can afford season tickets at $100 or more a pop, the ones that can buy the Mercedes and Hummers that are shown during the commercials of game broadcasts. The Starbury movement, however, reminds us that there is another, less visible segment of the league’s fan base. These are the fans that save up for upper deck seats maybe once a season. They struggle to pay the rent; they take public transportation. These are the fans, more often than not, who have more in common demographically with the players themselves than with the white collar fans who can pay to see them play live.
In this light, the Starbury One represents the latest salvo in the league’s war for two very different groups of hearts & minds. While Stern focuses on white investors who possess the capital needed to keep the league running, the launch of the Starbury movement is an important reminder that there are those who truly love the game, but have to scrape and save just to support it. Marbury’s sneakers are a nod to a place where the NBA thrives, though a place often overlooked. We can hope, though, that this launch can sustain its momentum, for along with attention to the brand, will be an attention to the systemic inequality that continues to drive NBA fans apart, despite the game that brings them together.