Boston's Big Three can dunk, block shots and make three-pointers, but what sports marketers want to know is whether they can pitch product.
It's an assignment that conceivably could have gone to Kobe Bryant, had his MVP season culminated in another NBA title. Yet, even before the Celtics' victory over the Lakers in the sixth and deciding game, sports marketers were questioning whether Bryant could counter lingering concerns among casual fans who are old enough to remember the criminal case that engulfed him five years ago.
"There are still a lot of negative reactions among consumers," said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., a Manhasset, N.Y., firm that measures consumer awareness of, and respect for, Hollywood stars and sports figures.
So, as fans begin to turn their attention to the Beijing Olympic Games, sports marketers are scrambling to understand the potential commercial appeal of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Garnett, who earned his first NBA championship ring since joining the league in 1995, scored the first sports marketing goal by earning his third Wheaties cereal box appearance. He ranks eighth on Sports Illustrated's Fortunate 50 index with an estimated $31 million in income -- $9 million of which is believed to come from off-the-court deals.
"Garnett could be the big winner because he started off as a bigger winner," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing executive with Baker Street Partners, a San Francisco-based advertising firm.
Pierce, the NBA Finals most valuable player, will benefit from the media spotlight -- but he could have scored a double-double had he been selected for the U.S. men's basketball team that will play in Beijing. Pierce finished 34th on Sports Illustrated's annual list of highest-paid athletes, with an estimated $17.8-million income -- with only $1.5 million tied to corporate deals.
"He went up against LeBron James and won, and went up against Kobe Bryant and won that battle, so he's arguably the best player out there," said Keith Bruce, chief marketing officer at Sportsmark, a San Francisco-based sports and event marketing firm. "But Pierce's marketability is going to have an expiration date to it, so I'd argue that he needs to move quick to seize the opportunity."
Allen, meanwhile, ranked 38th on SI's list with an estimated $16.7 million in the last year, with less than $1 million from off-the-court deals.
Hundreds of athletes have appeared on the Wheaties cereal box, but only Bob Richards, Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton, Walter Payton, Chris Evert, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods were invited to become Wheaties spokespeople. General Mills offered a straightforward explanation: "These seven athletes are more than just champions in their sport, they also are inspirational role models and champions in their community through their charitable endeavors."
In other words, they're squeaky clean.
"Corporate America is increasingly reluctant to take a risk on an athlete," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. "They want to see how he handles himself in the public light. And as long as they find a single hiccup, they become reluctant."
Bryant learned that starting in the summer of 2003, when he was accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in his room in Eagle County, Colo. The felony sexual assault charge was dropped before trial, and Bryant later settled a civil lawsuit brought by the woman.
McDonald's and Nutella dropped their deals, Nike benched Bryant until the summer of 2005 and Coca-Cola stopped using him to pitch Sprite. He didn't get a new sponsorship deal until mid-2006, when his image appeared on Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc.'s NBA 07 PlayStation 2 video game. He recently returned to the Coke fold with an endorsement deal for its Glaceau bottled-water brand, and he has drawn more than 5 million YouTube views for online spots featuring Nike's Hyperdunk shoes. Bryant also will get another chance to shine as part of the U.S. team in Beijing.
But he continues to suffer from public reaction to the criminal case. "Though he rates higher with hard-core sports fans, Bryant still doesn't come off very positively among general consumers," Schafer said.
Davie Brown Talent, a Dallas-based market research firm, contrasts the well-known Bryant with the lesser-known San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan, whose relative lack of name recognition is countered by such attributes as "appeal," "influence," and "trust," where he clearly trumps Bryant.
Schafer's research suggests that Bryant is resonating with one demographic -- teenagers who love winners and buy lots of sports merchandise.
His MVP T-shirt is the best-selling MVP product ever offered at the NBA Store in New York City and the league's online store.
But it remains to be seen if Bryant or Boston's Big Three will be able to further elevate their off-the-court game.
"Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan can sell cars, deodorant, pain relievers, whatever," Schafer said. "That's what happens when an athlete starts to transcend the sport. They become bona fide spokesmen who people admire and relate to."