By GREG ABEL
One of the feel-good stories of the year, about how a high-performance basketball shoe backed by Stephon Marbury arrived on the shelves of discounter Steve & Barry’s stores for $14.98, started in the mind of the Knicks point guard but took its first steps to reality at a lunch meeting with modest intentions.
|Stephon Marbury’s dream became a reality in August.
It was a spring day in 2005 when sports marketers Jordan Bazant and Peter Raskin, partners of The Agency Sports Management in New York, met with Howard Schacter, a former colleague from their days at SFX Sports who now is chief partnership officer for Steve & Barry’s.
There was no agenda, no specific deal to work out as they sat down at Pershing Square, a casual spot across from Grand Central Station.
Since The Agency had recently signed Marbury for his off-the-court initiatives, the group got to talking about how they might work together. Marbury’s shoe and apparel contract with And 1 had ended, and the Coney Island playground legend turned NBA all-star was looking for something new and different.
Having already made tens of millions of dollars playing ball, Marbury told his new reps that he wanted ownership in a brand that would make shoes and gear that were both cool to wear and affordable for any family’s budget. As the sixth in a family of seven kids, Marbury grew up wanting things his family often couldn’t afford. When he talked to Bazant, he talked in terms of a commitment to a “movement,” not the next big check from a sneaker company.
“He told me he wanted to change the world,” Bazant said.
Hitting the market
Bazant and Marbury had already shopped the concept to a few potential partners — licensees and holding companies — but they hadn’t found the right fit.
At lunch, with Marbury’s vision on his mind, Bazant listened to Schacter explain how Steve & Barry’s key challenge was evolving from a college T-shirt store into a serious retailer with the depth to appeal to a mass market. The company had made its name with low prices — at the time, nothing in the store sold for more than $10 — but it needed a better image.
Bazant started to think. “What if…?” Raskin was on the same page. As the conversation evolved, Bazant recalled, “Peter and I were just winking at each other thinking, ‘This is the company.’”
By the end of the lunch, Bazant introduced the concept of working with Marbury. Schacter took it back to his office and handed off to Aaron Spiewak, then the company’s licensing director. In the ensuing months, Spiewak developed a relationship with The Agency, working on several deals while brainstorming about how to make something work with Marbury.
In a series of follow-up meetings, The Agency stressed the unique opportunity of working with a point guard in the prime of his career who also was from New York, had “street cred” and believed personally in the “low cost, high quality” mission of the company.
“Above all point guards, Steph resonates with people who have the game close to their hearts,” said Spiewak, who left Steve & Barry’s for a licensing job with ESPN in August 2006. “For a New York company, there is no better person than Stephon Marbury.”
“Plus,” he added, “big men don’t sell shoes.”
Spiewak and The Agency put together the basic structure of the deal and won the support and enthusiasm of Marbury and Steve & Barry’s President Andy Todd. To get everything rolling, they called a dinner meeting at Mr. Chow’s in midtown Manhattan in late summer 2005.
At the table were Bazant and Raskin, along with Marbury and his wife, Steve Shore (the Steve of Steve & Barry’s), Todd, Spiewak, and a few others.
|Marbury and Steve & Barry’s President
Andy Todd at a tour stop in Minnesota.
During the meal, Todd told Marbury what Steve & Barry’s was all about, at one point using the words, “change the world.” Marbury stopped him midsentence.
“He said, ‘That’s it, that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to change the world,’” Todd said. “We saw what a genuine person he was. It was so personal to him that it made sense.”
“Steph told us he wanted to do the deal before appetizers were served,” recalled Spiewak.
Said Marbury, “I basically said if they can make affordable things for people to have and it’s the same quality, I’m all down for it because that gives everyone an opportunity and that’s what the movement is about.”
Creating the buzz
Not long after, a contract was signed, one that pays Marbury based on sales, not a flat endorsement fee. According to Todd, the Steve & Barry’s team went to work before the ink hit paper, contracting New Hampshire-based design firm Rocket Fish to create what would become Starbury One, a product that derives its name from Marbury’s longtime nickname.
To drive momentum, the team members gave themselves a series of tight deadlines. They wanted a shoe out before the 2006-07 NBA season. Along the way, the core team met at Marbury’s Westchester, N.Y., home, sitting around a big couch where the NBA star provided input on everything from design to fit to marketing.
As the shoe’s design and development evolved, Bazant said he and Marbury often kidded each other that there was no way the concept could really happen: a sleek, high-performance shoe that looked good enough and performed well enough for the starting point guard of the New York Knicks to wear it in games but that could be sold at a profit for less than $15. But it was beginning to take shape.
When they were presented with the final design of the shoe, “We went nuts,” Bazant said, “They really did it.”
Less than a year after the dinner meeting at Mr. Chow’s, the public and the media went nuts, too. The press release hit on Aug. 16, 2006, with a headline that read: “Entire Line of High Quality Clothing and Footwear Will Enable Kids and Parents to Purchase NBA-Quality Sneakers for Under $15 and Create Entire Wardrobes for Under $100.”
A launch party in New York brought the buzz to a fevered pitch.
The story first hit with an interview on “Live with Regis and Kelly.” It then appeared on “Good Morning America.” The Associated Press, USA Today and others seemed to follow in lockstep, gushing over the price point and Marbury’s involvement.
|Product display at a Steve & Barry’s store
Steve & Barry’s brought in other partners to assist in the launch. The Mastermind Group, a marketing firm that The Agency recommended, led by former Jordan Brand director Erin Patton, coordinated advertising, public relations, online and other marketing services.
But it was Marbury who had the other key idea that fueled the successful launch. He came up with the idea for a road show: a 17-day, 40-stop tour that took Marbury and his new line to malls and basketball courts in the key Steve & Barry’s markets and stores around the country.
“I just thought, ‘It would be crazy if we went on tour,’” he said. “When I saw how people were reacting, I just wanted to go grassroots and let people see the product and touch the product.”
In September, in city after city, town after town, mall after mall, people lined up in the hundreds to buy the $14.98 shoes, to thank the player who brought them to life and to heap “much love,” as Marbury would say it, onto what he calls “the movement.” TV cameras and reporters followed, as if on cue, bringing reams of positive PR to the marketplace.
Said Todd, “Being on tour so crystallized what a fantastic thing we were doing. Parents were hugging us and saying they can afford $10 for a jersey and $15 for shoes. It was already great; the tour made it legendary.”
Marbury also used the tour to train every day with the shoes on, playing against local high school teams and preparing for training camp.
He bristles at any discussion that the Starbury shoe line is a PR move to improve his image. He had a very public flap with former Knicks coach Larry Brown last season, and the Knicks are mired in more misery this season.
“When I did this project, the thing that upset me is people saying I did it for my image,” he said. “I know what I do. I help people. I take care of people and put them in situations where they can prosper. This isn’t about me. This is about everybody else.”
‘Best experience of my life’
The Starbury line includes more than shoes. It started with 50 items and plans to increase to 200. Steve & Barry’s is expanding as well, now up to 195 stores from just 60 when the company struck its deal with Marbury in 2005.
Because Steve & Barry’s is privately held, the company would not disclose sales figures. What Todd would say is, “[Sales] have been through the roof. We get them in, they go right out. Last week [in early December] was the first time where we might have enough shoes in stock.”
The launch shows no signs of slowing, either. Earlier this month, the Starbury One was named shoe “launch of the year” by Footwear News.
“It was really about providing a great product at a good value,” Bazant said. “We think that this ‘movement’ rings true with most people.”
It’s unclear what response, if any, could be forthcoming in the marketplace from competing shoe companies to the buzz generated by the Starbury One. Todd, though, feels the product could have a lasting impact on the business.
“The way people shop for NBA-endorsed products is going to change, and I think we are changing it,” he said. “It’s the movement: People are voting with their pocket books. The time has come for us not to pay $200 for sneakers. They don’t cost that much to make.”
He also credited Marbury for the role he played in the process.
“With Stephon, it’s about the kids,” he said. “I’ve done hundreds of interviews, and every time I say, ‘It’s about the kids,’ people go, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ But with Stephon, I am telling you, it was and is about the kids.”
Marbury said this is no short-term deal for him.
“You can ask me anything. There is not a move that’s made without me involved,” he said. “I am 100 percent into this, 100 percent involved, and it’s something that I’m committed to for the rest of my life.”
Of the tour, Marbury added, “That was the best experience of my life. When you see someone crying and laughing at the same time, you don’t even know how to feel.”
Greg Abel is a writer in Baltimore and can be reached at email@example.com.