Marbury vs. Madison Avenue

Can Stephon Marbury’s $15 sneaker revolutionize the sports-shoe business?

Star-endorsed basketball shoes have long been one of the great rip-offs in footwear. Nike wants $130 for a pair of Zoom Kobe I sneakers and $110 for Zoom LeBron IIIs. You’ll pay at least $90 for Allen Iverson’s signature shoes, the Answer. (The question: What costs too much?)

But now cheap is suddenly cool. New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury has just put his name on a line of cheap athletic wear and shoes, dubbed Starbury. Marbury’s signature Starbury One basketball shoes retail for a mere $15.

Marbury isn’t the first basketball player to put his name on cheaper shoes. In 2004, Shaquille O’Neal’s Dunkman line of shoes retailed at Payless for $40 a pair. But what distinguishes Marbury’s shoe is its extreme cheapness combined with his vow to actually use it in his professional life. “I’m going to wear the shoe on court. I’m going to wear the sneakers all season,” he said in a piece that aired on National Public Radio this morning. 

Part of the unspoken language of consumerism is that we’re not really supposed to believe that high-end celebrities actually use the affordable products they endorse. At her various homes, including her estate in Westport, Conn., now on the market for an absurd $8.995 million, we don’t expect to find Martha Stewart using the $8.99 100 percent nylon bath mat she endorses for Kmart. Likewise, when Michael Graves designs interiors for fancy homes and high-end offices, we don’t really think that he’s fitting them out with the $4.99 wall clocks he designs for Target.

On the court, Marbury has generally been the anti-Michael Jordan—stuck with a reputation as a pouting, troublemaking nonwinner. Off the court, he wants to be the anti-Jordan, too. Jordan’s long-running Nike shoes are rather expensive—the new Jordan Men’s XXI goes for $175. They’re certainly not 12 times better than the Starbury One. Over the years, Jordan has come in for criticism for putting his name on expensive shoes that are made with cheap foreign labor and marketed to a generally low-income domestic audience. And he’s generally been indifferent to the charge. Marbury is framing his commercial venture as a self-abnegating act. He’s using his celebrity to create products that even poor people can easily afford.

Will his shoe put him at a competitive disadvantage against NBA opponents who hawk and wear $150 sneakers? Fifteen-dollar sneakers may be adequate for kids running around a schoolyard, but against LeBron? Earlier today, I picked up a pair of $10 Starbury SXMs and road-tested them, juking several editors, executing an awkward 360 at the Xerox machine, and busting out a few crossovers in the elevator. They seemed to work fine. But if my job involved covering ankle-breaker Dwyane Wade, and if my ability to earn millions of dollars hinged on protecting my fragile feet and ankles, then I’d probably want a little more arch support. In fact, I’d probably want to wear the best, highest-performance equipment money can buy. Not even Marbury is making that claim about his shoes.

And rather than affiliate with a sleek, design-conscious company like Nike or a mega-retailer like Target, Marbury has chosen to cast his lot with a scrappy upstart. The Starbury line is available only at the up-and-coming cheapo apparel retailer Steve & Barry’s. Steve & Barry’s started with a single store at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985, expanded to other college campuses, and then to malls. Today, there are about 130 stores, with six opening in August and September alone. This piece in Business Week explains howSteven Shore and Barry Prevor have managed to undercut Wal-Mart and Target by scoring great deals from landlords at crappy malls, buying directly from overseas, and offering only house brands. The result: absurdly low prices. Walk through the aisles and you’ll shake your head in disbelief: polo shirts, rugby shirts, hats, university T-shirts, bulky hooded sweatshirts, jeans and khakis, shorts, warm-up jackets, all for less than $10. You could clothe your family for a year for $100. If Steve & Barry can figure out how to make a few pennies on each sale, they can certainly figure out how to make sure Marbury gets a penny or two.

And unlike Nike and Foot Locker, Steve & Barry don’t advertise.Which is another reason that Marbury’s deal seems both self-sacrificing and affordable. Spike Lee certainly won’t be making any high-concept ads for the Starbury One, and Stephon  will have to help hustle the goods himself (Marbury vs. Madison Avenue). But these days, fantastic word-of-mouth can be as valuable as a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. And Starbury certainly has that.

This morning, the Manhattan Mall was generally empty—except for the line of 75 people queuing up outside Steve & Barry’s to get a look at the shoes, which had arrived earlier this month. Inside, many were frustrated by the lack of selection and the two-pair-per-person limit. But that didn’t stop them from loading up on Starbury apparel—T-shirts and varsity jackets, jeans, satiny warm-up jackets and baggy shorts, basketball jerseys—all for a tiny fraction of what similar products would cost at Niketown or at the New York Knicks’ online store. Meanwhile, foot traffic at the Foot Locker one floor down was nonexistent.