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With Altered Image, Bryant a Tough Sell

Laker star is 'damaged goods' for endorsement deals despite dismissal of the charge, experts say.

September 03, 2004|David Wharton and Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writers

Before that night in the summer of 2003 when Kobe Bryant invited a 19-year-old hotel employee to his room, the Laker star belonged to select company.

Like Tiger, Shaq and Serena, he was among a handful of American athletes who could be identified by one name. On Madison Avenue, that translated into tens of millions in endorsement dollars.

Now, marketing experts say, his name has expanded to "Kobe Bryant, once accused of sexual assault."

"Now he has that tagline," said David Carter, a Los Angeles sports business consultant. "Major companies will say forget about it. They have too many choices to align themselves with damaged goods."

The scandal might already have cost Bryant $4 million to $6 million in endorsement contracts that McDonald's Corp. and Nutella chose not to renew in the last year, experts said.

That's a significant amount of money, even for someone who earns an estimated $20 million a year in endorsements and ranked 10th on the most recent Forbes list of highest-paid athletes at $26.1 million.

The Bryant sexual assault case ranked among the most publicized scandals in sports, perhaps exceeded only by the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

On Thursday, the day after the sexual assault charge was dismissed in Eagle, Colo., clearing Bryant of any criminal jeopardy, experts predicted he will continue to face judgment in the corporate world.

Though the case against him was widely seen as flawed and the dropped charge is a form of exoneration, Bryant faces a civil suit filed by his accuser. He has admitted to adultery, saying he had consensual sex with the woman, now 20, at a mountain resort on June 30, 2003.

"Whether what happened is disputable or couldn't be proven in court, he did cheat on his wife," said Doug Shabelman, senior vice president of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing in Chicago. "It was well documented."

The 26-year-old basketball player originally made himself into a marketing juggernaut -- hawking products that ranged from Nike shoes to Sprite soda -- by way of a squeaky clean image.

His early years were spent in Italy, where his father played professional basketball. He was cultured and multilingual. There were no brushes with the law, no tattoos covering his arms.

This privileged background seemed to hurt his reputation in the hip-hop world of the National Basketball Assn., where he lacked the "street cred" that equates to social currency in the league.

In the corporate world, it was another matter.

"If you're trying to sell a mainstream product, you don't want street cred," Carter said. "You want Wal-Mart cred and Target cred."

After the sexual assault case, he still has major endorsement deals with Nike Inc., Spalding, Coca-Cola Co. and Upper Deck trading cards. Marketing experts said they will track several constituencies that could react to his travails in different ways.

In the short run, corporations are expected to turn their backs on the NBA superstar, wary of the risk involved.

Coca-Cola, the maker of Sprite, stopped featuring Bryant in its ads after the scandal broke. Soon after, the soft drink company signed a six-year deal with Cleveland Cavalier star LeBron James, who is now featured prominently on the Sprite website.

Experts said another key group, the so-called "soccer moms" who wield significant spending power, are more likely to side with Bryant's accuser and abandon the player.

His marketing salvation could come from a third group: sports fans.

"They can compartmentalize," Carter said. "You saw that last season. Whenever he came back from [a court appearance] in Eagle and stepped on the court, he was treated like a superhero."

Even with a charge hanging over Bryant, fans shopped briskly for copies of his No. 8 Laker jersey last season. It was the seventh-best-selling uniform among all NBA players at the league's New York store and its online outlet, two spots ahead of then-teammate Shaquille O'Neal.

Next season, fans' loyalty might be predicated on Bryant's ability to score points and make steals following the Laker house-cleaning that sent O'Neal to the Miami Heat.

Still, if Bryant can play up to expectations, Carter said, "the sports fans will line up behind him."

And that could keep his earning potential high among marketers who cater to fans. In particular, Bryant has approximately four years remaining on a five-year contract with Nike worth $40 million to $45 million.

"There's been no change in that contract at all," Nike spokesman Rodney Knox said. "We continue to look forward to working with Kobe."

Nike has stuck by sprinter Marion Jones, who has been drawn into the BALCO steroids scandal and has been under investigation by sports authorities for possible use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Though Jones was not used prominently in advertisements in the last year, Nike ran a television commercial featuring her during the Athens Games.

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