Monday, December 11, 2006

Stephon Marbury – Doing the Right Thing

In 1998 Spike Lee directed “He Got Game” a film based on a fictional account of a Brooklyn high school basketball player, the best high school basketball in America, Jesus Shuttlesworth and the interest everyone close to Jesus had in wanting a piece of his success.

The movie starred Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttlesworth. Jones cast Allen in the key role, but could have easily asked Brooklyn native and New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury to play the role. Marbury had lived the life Lee created.

Marbury grew up with Cooney Island’s famed boardwalk serving as a backdrop to the tenement apartments and basketball courts Marbury and his younger cousin Sebastian Telfair called home as youngsters. Marbury is living proof greatness can take place when a boy grows up to be a man and that man does his very best to give back to his community. If the National Basketball Association wants to use one athlete as its role model they need look no further than Stephon Marbury.

He has been named to The Sporting News list of “Good Guys in Sports” three times. He was one of the highest donors to the NBA Player Associations Katrina Relief effort, donating 1 million dollars to the effort. He currently has 7 barbers on hire in Coney Island giving free haircuts to neighborhood children. But it’s his Starbury Ones basketball shoes that represent what one day might become Marbury’s lasting legacy to basketball to tens of thousands of children and their families – affordable shoes and basketball apparel and to the community.

Last week Footwear News an industry magazine recognized the impact Marbury’s product launch had on the industry by awarding Marbury its “Launch of the Year”. Footwear News who also publishes Women’s Wear Daily awards is thought to be the “Oscars of the shoe industry”. Marbury and his partners retailers Steve & Barry's last week also announced they are donating a free pair of Starbury One high performance basketball sneakers to every varsity high school boys basketball player in New York City. The donation of 3,000 pairs of Starbury Ones is part of a new agreement that makes the Starbury brand a Partner of the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL). The PSAL directs all athletic competition among the 193 public high schools in the five boroughs.

Stephon played in the PSAL while growing up in Coney Island and attending Lincoln High School. As a senior, he averaged more than 28 points and 9 assists per game while leading his team to the 1995 PSAL championship.

"The PSAL helped me get to where I am today and I am real excited to be able to supply free sneakers to all of these kids," Marbury said. "I hope it inspires them to become better players, and even more important better men."

"We are very proud of Stephon Marbury's accomplishments on and off the court," said Donald Douglas, Executive Director of the PSAL. "Our PSAL basketball players will benefit greatly from Steve & Barry's generous gift of Stephon's Starbury Ones basketball sneaker and we are very appreciative of their support. We look forward to future endeavors that bring Stephon, Steve & Barry's, and the PSAL together for the benefit of our student-athletes."

Marbury launched his product ‘revolution’ on August 17, and followed that with a 21- city tour promoting the shoes and the accompanying clothing line. The product launch and the subsequent tour was timed to send a message to parents from lower income families as they were conducting their back-to-school shopping, you can afford to have your kids look and feel like an NBA basketball player.

Stephon Marbury said at the time of the release: "Kids shouldn't have to feel the pressure to spend so much to feel good about the way they look. I'm blessed to be in a position to do something about it, to help change the world. I couldn't find a better partner to create the Starbury Collection with than Steve & Barry's. For 20 years, their entire business has been about selling great quality clothes for much less than people expect they should cost."

Steve & Barry's co-CEO Barry Prevor added: “This is a very exciting moment for Steve & Barry's. When Steve and I founded our company in 1985, it was with a mission to bring people the most unbelievable values on clothes they've ever seen. That's exactly what Steph's vision for the Starbury Collection is all about, so this has been a fantastic partnership from the first day we met. Like Steph, we want to revolutionize how people shop, and this new line will help us continue to make that happen."

Marbury commented, "It was very important to me that the Starbury Collection have a strong social component for kids and parents, especially in urban areas. Steve & Barry's and I decided to conduct the design contest so kids could give real input into how the Starbury line is created and as a means to give back to youth and the community."

Marbury played one year at Georgia Tech, the highlight was his 26 points in leading Georgia Tech to the 1996 ACC Tournament title over Tim Duncan’s Wake Forest team. Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks as the fourth overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, and then immediately traded for Ray Allen to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Marbury was again traded to the New Jersey Nets on March 11, 1999. The Nets traded Marbury to the Phoenix Suns on July 18, 2001. The Suns traded Marbury to his hometown Knicks on January 5, 2004.

Four NBA teams in less then eight seasons, Marbury must have believed he would be living the dream when the Cooney Island high school phenom had returned with a chance at being the local hero. Unfortunately for Marbury and the Knicks, these have not been the best of times for the once proud franchise that calls Madison Square Garden home.

"It hasn't worked out the way everyone thought it would," Mark Jackson, the former Knicks point guard who has known Marbury for years told The New York Daily News in March. "Stephon Marbury came in with a lot of baggage and hasn't found success in New York. But this is a collective effort. There is plenty of blame to go around."

The Daily News report in March didn’t paint a pretty picture of Marbury. Titled, “The fall of a Starbury” was a damming look at the return of a not so conquering hero who had let everyone down in the 27-months (January 2004 to March 2006) since his return to New York.

"He's not a happy person," says Rob Johnson, the Queens basketball consultant who has known Marbury since he was a kid. "Steph treats everyone with a cold shoulder. I know he takes care of a lot of people and he does a lot of good with his summer tournament. But he's very moody and he's hard to get along with."

Marbury was the point guard on the ill-fated 2004 United States Olympic basketball team, the dream team that became a nightmare. Still the gold medal favorites, even after a disastrous sixth place finish at the 2002 World Basketball Championships, the United States finished with a bronze medal at the Athens Game. Larry Brown was American head coach with the 2004 Olympic team. Marbury and Brown began a battle in Athens that escalated into a WAR two years later. Brown was fired by the Knicks after the 2005-06 season, Marbury’s reputation destroyed after the very public battle while Brown served as the Knicks head coach.

"Anyone who witnessed what happened at the Olympics saw this coming," Jackson told The New York Daily News. "There is no denying that Stephon Marbury is a great player and Larry Brown is a great coach. But as far as being the type of point guard that Larry wants, Stephon doesn't fit the mold."

In a classic case of ‘what have you done for me lately’ the image Marbury had when the Starbury One product launch took place was terrible. That made the product launch that much more interesting. Yes, Stephon Marbury might have grown up without many of the niceties many children enjoy, but the image Marbury had in August was someone living in the lap of luxury. Marbury’s current six-year NBA contract (remember all NBA contracts are guaranteed) pays him $104,910,000 over the lifetime of the agreement. How could anyone who has made as much money as Stephon Marbury has been paid to play basketball become the face of discounted basketball shoes?

Adding even more ‘intrigue’ to the product launch, in the world of $100 million shoe endorsement deals (LeBron James has a $90 million contract with Nike), the Marbury who’s $16.45 million 2005-06 salary made him the fifth highest NBA player wasn’t guaranteed anything for endorsing the shoes, rather Marbury choose to accept a percentage of sales revenue generated from the sale of the product line.

In a world where the average sneaker costs more than $100 and shoes bearing the seal of Allen Iverson, LeBron James or Michael Jordan’s approval can cost between $150 and $300 for a pair of basketball shoes, Marbury was intent on being the spokesman for a shoe that would retail for $15 a pair.

'We are allowing kids to become more educated (but they) are not allowing themselves to see the big picture,' Marbury said days after the launch. 'The big picture is not having a $200 pair of sneakers when your mother's income is $15,000. When you walk into a store, you are not being held hostage any more. So it's an outlet for the people, especially from where I come from.”

The market reaction – the shoes have sold out wherever and whenever they have been available. More than 3 million pairs of Starbury’s have sold with little if any marketing behind the project except for the marketing and promotional tour since the product launch on August 17. Consider these points raised in a report from Design Bulletin’s Mark Ritson:

- The Starbury One shoe was designed by Steve & Barry's University Sportswear, which began as a collegiate apparel store at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985 and aims to provide quality merchandise at a reasonable price.

- Steve & Barry's currently has more than 150 stores in 33 US states and plans to expand to 200 by the end of this year.

- Stephon Marbury traveled to 40 US cities in 17 days to promote the shoe. So far, about 3m pairs have been sold.

- The US athletic footwear market is worth about $8bn

- Other NBA 'signature' shoes include Nike's Kobe Bryant Huarache trainers (priced about $120), Converse's Dwayne Wade sneakers (priced about $100) and the 'daddy' of sneaker endorsements - Nike and Michael Jordan's Air Jordan line (about $180 a pair). The first Air Jordans went on sale in 1985.

Erin Patton, principal of The Mastermind Group, the marketing agency behind the Starbury Collection, told Britain’s Manchester Guardian: "Stephon Marbury understood the difficulty parents and kids face keeping pace with the exorbitant price of sneakers. He knows what it means for inner-city living kids and the extreme measures that are sometimes used to get these products." Patton, who for five years was director of the Jordan brand at Nike, described Marbury's initiative as "an industry-changing event".

"Things are so crazy out there," Marbury said. "There's kids who are shot over jerseys for $150, $200. There's poor mothers and families out there who bury their child for a jersey. We're talking about clothes. Things have gotten too crazy."

“His intent is admirable. It's important because so few athletes have been willing to do this,” says Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago organization that tracks advertising, marketing and media aimed at black consumers in a USA Today report. “Marbury's move gives parents a way to offer their kids a reasonable alternative to those $200 basketball shoes.”

According to an October USA Today report, in 2004, black consumers spent $2.3 billion on alcoholic beverages and only $257 million on books; $22 billion on clothes and just $2 billion on computers. “It's more about social value than economics,” Smikle explains. “If you ascribe to a certain social value, you'll buy high-priced footwear.”

A New York Times report suggested Marbury’s initial motivation as at least in part personal reflections Marbury had with current Knicks coach Isiah Thomas about Marbury leaving a lasting legacy after he leaves professional basketball behind. Having earned well over $100 million as a basketball player the 29-year old will never have to concern himself with money again. However after talking to Thomas, Marbury decided there was more to life then the money he’s made as an NBA basketball player.

“He was explaining to me how my generation never went through anything,” Marbury told The New York Times. “There was a generation that went through things that we never even envisioned. For me to be able to talk with him, get insight on how things were back in the day, I got a picture of what he created for me to see. It made me feel like I want to put my mark on history as far as letting people know that I’m a part of something that I’m moving with. All this is brand new, this is revolutionary, the thing that we’re doing right now.”

In late August, Bob Basché, the chairman of the sports marketing agency Millsport in Stamford, told Ad Week he believed sales of the shoes would be limited to the New York area, the story wasn’t bigger than a local (New York story) and Marbury didn’t have the cache to sell shoes nationally like LeBron James, Michael Jordan or Dwayne Wade, adding::this will be profitable for Marbury and Steve & Barry’s, but it won’t impact the industry.”

He added, “Marbury has a New York following but doesn’t command the attention of the entire basketball nation the way LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Michael Jordan do.”

Andy Todd, the president of Steve & Barry’s, disagreed. “I would invite you or him to come to any of our stores, not just in New York, but in Detroit and Los Angeles, where they’re also sold out, and see if it’s changing the world,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It’s become a movement. People have taken to this. And it’s not a New York story at all. This whole Starbury collection is about Steph’s vision to eliminate the pressure that parents and kids feel to spend top dollar on the latest sneakers and clothing.”

Needless to say the industries product launch of the year, more than 3 million shoes sold, Mr. Basché was wrong on nearly every assessment he made relating to Stephon Marbury, Starbury One and what the consumer is looking for. Mr. Basché may believe he was right, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Footwear News, Brand and Republic and Adweek.

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