Name-brand, cool, low-cost

The NBA's Stephon Marbury wants to sell athletic shoes families can afford

September 17, 2006|By Tanika White | Tanika White,Sun reporter

Growing up poor with seven siblings and in a rough-and-tumble Coney Island, N.Y., neighborhood, NBA star Stephon Marbury has told the story about how he always wanted to be one of the kids boasting about their fresh-out-the-box pairs of Air Jordan sneakers.

Today, the New York Knicks point guard is a millionaire with money to burn. But as far as he's concerned, families should not have to choose between the light bill and a pair of $150 sneakers - the kind of shoes for which kids have competed and sometimes fought and died over.

So he's bucked the prevailing NBA-shoe-endorsement dogma by creating his own high-performance, deftly styled basketball shoe - that costs just $14.98. At that price, it's considered high-end for the much-buzzed-about Starbury collection, which includes three other styles of sneakers and a line of urban apparel, most of which sells for under $10.

Such prices are turning heads, defying an industry strategy that has made millions of dollars for footwear companies and their celebrity endorsers but has shown signs of slowing.

"It just may work," says Natalie Weathers, assistant professor in the fashion industry management department at Philadelphia University. "The consumer today has become a lot more sophisticated about where they'll spend their money because they understand they have options. ... They may decide, `Why am I spending $100 or more on these name brand sneakers?'"

Whether kids embrace Marbury's "Starburys" - and some competitors are skeptical that they will see the cut-rate shoes as cool - many parents appreciate a measure of sanity restored to the pricing of footwear.

"Oh, this is nice," said Rodney Cooper of White Marsh recently, holding two pairs of newly purchased Starbury sneakers for his 8-year-old son. "Instead of paying $125 for a pair of Nikes, with Michael Jordan or whoever's name on 'em, you can get these."

That's the philosophy behind Marbury's newly launched collection, the centerpiece of which is the $15 basketball shoe - the Starbury One. The shoes can only be bought at Steve & Barry's, a 140-store chain based in Port Washington, N.Y., that helped Marbury design, produce and sell the shoes.

"Stephon has a dream, has a vision of impacting the inner city in particular, kids in general and all shoppers, if he can find a way to make these kinds of sneakers more affordable," said Howard Schacter, chief partnership officer for Steve & Barry's. "So we had a conversation and said we think there may be a match made in heaven here."

The partnership, which began last summer, is one of the first in which an NBA star isn't paid handsomely up front to endorse the basketball shoe, which hit the market last month. Instead, Marbury will be paid a percentage of Steve & Barry's profits, "based on the performance of the collection," Schacter says.

Steve & Barry's officials would not elaborate on the financial success of the shoe so far but say the sneaker is a hit with consumers.

"We are a volume business," Schacter says. "We are comfortable making pennies on each one. We are doing what we are doing for kids and parents. ... What we are doing is the right thing to do."

Those who watch the athletic shoe industry say Marbury's new sneaker has a much smaller share of the market than industry leaders Nike, Reebok and Adidas.

"There's no way to compare the market share of the Starbury, when it has a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of the market," says Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in Washington.

Still parents, kids, and footwear and fashion experts are singing Marbury's praises.

Steve & Barry's stores, including Baltimore's Eastpoint Mall location, routinely sell out of the shoes within days of receiving them. Articles in Slate and reports on National Public Radio tell of long lines of shoppers waiting and clamoring to buy.

"Before, I didn't really pay a lot of attention to Stephon Marbury," says D'Vonte Nixon, 11, whose mother has purchased for him at least three pairs of Starbury shoes. "But now that he's come out with these, I really look up to him. A lot of people can't afford $50 or $100 for shoes."

"Go on with your big, bad self, Stephon," says Kelly Rae, fashion and grooming director at Stuff magazine. "What I think is hot about it is that he's one of the coolest players out there, and at the same time he has this really affordable shoe. It just makes it cool and accessible to everyone."

Not everyone is impressed.

"Our customers, they want the higher-end and they want the most exclusive shoes, and we sell 'em," said June Sanders, men's footwear buyer for DTLR (formerly Downtown Locker Room) stores.

Sanders doubts Steve & Barry's claims that the shoes are "exactly the same as the most expensive kicks on the market," as Marbury's Web site boasts.

"The quality of the shoe can't be the same if the shoe costs $15," he says.

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