You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ESPN’s ‘Sole Man’

Sonny Vaccaro

There’s an epic quality to the story of Sonny Vaccaro, who significantly reinvented the financial dynamics of college basketball, the sports-apparel industry and even the NBA with “sneaker money,” before turning against the system he helped create. Enter “Sole Man,” a documentary devoted to the sports-marketing exec’s remarkable tale, which, in an interesting twist, will be serialized over five nights on the Grantland Website in advance of its ESPN debut. Like the best “30 for 30” fare, the project — timed to the NCAA basketball championship — does a little hand-biting of those who feed the lucrative world over which ESPN presides.

Making their directing debuts, Jon Weinbach and Dan Marks (“Straight Outta LA”) have an exceptionally colorful leading man in Vaccaro, who famously (or perhaps notoriously) transformed an Oregon running-shoe company named Nike into a powerhouse by handing out free shoes and fat deals to basketball coaches, a number of whom are interviewed, including Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and John Thompson (Georgetown).

The sports titans whose path Vaccaro has crossed represent a who’s who of basketball. It was Vaccaro, after all, who singled out college star Michael Jordan as the ideal Nike pitchman, signing him to his first shoe contract once he jumped to the pros; helped steer Kobe Bryant to the Lakers; and chased a high-school student named LeBron James on behalf of Adidas after being fired by Nike, triggering a high-stakes bidding war between the two purveyors of footwear.

On a more dubious note, this kingmaker fostered a system that has “pre-professionalized” kids at a younger and younger age, as one sportswriter notes, one in which shoe companies are seeking to identify basketball prodigies while they’re still barely old enough to shave. It’s a strategy that dates back to the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic that Vaccaro founded, which became a kind of meat market for coaches eager to corral high-school talent.

Finally, Vaccaro soured on the arcane rules imposed by the NCAA, and has been working with former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon in his groundbreaking antitrust lawsuit against college basketball that challenges the way players are exploited without direct compensation.

Tellingly, these issues remain thorny enough that several of the key figures whose wealth was padded enormously by Vaccaro’s labor  including Jordan, Bryant, James and Nike CEO Phil Knight  refused to be interviewed, a point that clearly rankles Vaccaro when he is asked about it. There’s also a fascinating section detailing Vaccaro’s strained relationship with George Raveling, the best man at his wedding, with whom he had a falling out, Vaccaro says, after he refused to try to steer prized recruits O’Bannon and his brother Charles to USC, where Raveling was coaching at the time.

Not everything about the film works, including the liberal use of schlocky-looking animation to illustrate certain episodes. The overarching theme, however, regarding the corrosive effect of pumping so much marketing money into the college game, is both timely and extraordinarily compelling, as well as a crash course in a basketball-sneaker business that has grown into a $3 billion industry.

As constructed, the documentary’s segmented format can be readily consumed either as a whole or diced into chapters for the Web. And while ESPN doesn’t often address its own oversized role in shaping the sports ecosystem, “Sole Man” is emblematic of a “30 for 30” franchise in which the network consistently puts its best foot forward.

TV Review: ESPN's 'Sole Man'

(Documentary; ESPN, Thurs. April 16, 9 p.m. ET; Grantland.com, April 6-10)

Production: Produced by Electric City Entertainment.

Crew: Executive producers, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, Cash Warren, Baron Davis; producers, Katie McNeill, Jon Weinbach; directors, Weinbach, Dan Marks; camera, Marc Levy; editor, Marks; music, Jingle Punks. 90 MIN.

Cast: Sonny Vaccaro

More TV

  • How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes

    How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes Sports and Showbiz in an Entertaining Mix

    Walking through the El Segundo studio where veteran sportscaster Rich Eisen tapes his daily “Rich Eisen Show,” the sheer density of sports memorabilia is overwhelming — everything from game balls to jerseys, gear, autographs and uncountable photos are crammed onto every inch of wall and desk space. But step into Eisen’s dressing room, and the [...]

  • Whiskey Tango Cavalier

    TV Review: 'Whiskey Cavalier'

    The crux of “Whiskey Cavalier” can be found right in its protagonist’s name. “Will Chase” is a purposefully ridiculous wink of a name that tries to be both debonair and very silly all at once, just like the FBI agent (played by Scott Foley) to which it belongs. This isn’t a regular spy drama, “Whiskey [...]

  • Brody Stevens Dead

    Comedian Brody Stevens Dies at 48

    Prominent Los Angeles comedian Brody Stevens died Friday in Los Angeles, Variety has confirmed. He was 48. “Brody was an inspiring voice who was a friend to many in the comedy community,” Stevens’ reps said in a statement. “He pushed creative boundaries and his passion for his work and his love of baseball were contagious. [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Malik Yoba to Reprise Role in 'New York Undercover' Reboot at ABC

    Malik Yoba, who starred as Detective J.C. Williams in the 90s show “New York Undercover,” is set to reprise the role in the ABC reboot, sources tell Variety. Picking up 20 years after the end of the original series, “New York Undercover” will follow detectives Nat Gilmore and Melissa Ortiz as they investigate the city’s [...]

  • Chris Burrous dead KTLA anchor

    KTLA Anchor Chris Burrous' Cause of Death Released

    An investigative report on KTLA anchor Chris Burrous has determined that his cause of death was attributed to methamphetamine toxicity, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. Burrous, 43, was found unconscious at a motel in Glendale, Calif on December 27, and later died at the hospital. The death has been ruled as accidental. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Late Show With Stephen Colbert' Win Publicity Campaign Awards

    Hollywood publicists have selected “Crazy Rich Asians” as the top movie publicity campaign for 2018 and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” as the best television campaign. Warner Bros.’ “Crazy Rich Asians” topped the campaigns for Disney’s “Black Panther,” Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place,” Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and Universal’s “Halloween” for [...]

  • THE MASKED SINGER: Rabbit in the

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of Feb. 11: 'Masked Singer' Easily Tops Competition

    Fox’s “The Masked Singer” was the highest-rated broadcast show of the week in both Live+Same Day and Live+3. For the week of Feb. 11, the unscripted singing competition series went from a 2.4 rating in adults 18-49 to a 3.4, a rise of 42%. In total viewers, the show went from 7.8 million viewers to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content