I think you could make a pretty good guess at someone’s age by asking them to name one player, past or present associated with the Los Angeles Lakers. Boomers and Xers would likely come up with Kareem or Magic. Gen Y might think Shaq. For Millennials, of course, the face of the franchise is Kobe. Bryant sent a shockwave through the sports world last week by announcing that he’ll be hanging up his jersey for good at the end of the season. In terms of PR, Bryant has been something of a force of nature. In addition to establishing a rather astonishing personal brand, he’s contributed to the visibility of the Lakers and the NBA.
Kobe wasn’t exactly the marketing juggernaut that his childhood idol, Michal Jordan, was, but his $350 million in off the court endorsement income is nothing to sneeze at. Bryant pitched for top brands including Mercedes-Benz, McDonald’s, Sprite, Nintendo and Sony. Nike has been his most important contact, signing Bryant to a $10-million-a-year contract in 2003.
A Fall from Grace
Of course, those endorsement deals were put in jeopardy in 2004 when Bryant was accused of rape by an employee at a Colorado lodge where he was recovering from knee surgery. The charges were later dropped, but Bryant publicly admitted to adultery. ABC news ran the headline, “Kobe Bryant's Image Forever Tarnished?” while the Washington Post went with, “Bryant's Commercial Appeal in Question.” It turns out that the damage was temporary. Last year alone, Nike sold $105 million worth of Bryant’s sneakers.
How did the accusation impact the league? Mark Bartelstein, an agent for other Lakers players at the time said, “The way it affected the league was that it generated a lot of headlines. Everybody criticized Mark Cuban for saying that the trial would get the league a lot of press, but it was true. A lot of the interest was for the wrong reasons, but more stories were written about it than anything else in the league this year." We’re not fans of the “all press is good press” philosophy, but he does have a point. While it is risky for brands to link too closely to individual people who may suffer personal failings (Subway’s Jerod comes to mind), in this case the public moved on.
There’s a Bright Side for the Lakers
The Lakers’ season did not get off to a good start. (Understatement.) Currently the team trails in the Western conference with a dismal record of 3 – 16. Broadcast ratings and attendance had predictably dwindled. That all changed with Bryant’s announcement. Now the Lakers will have a packed house as fans take the chance to see the basketball great play one more time. The going rate for the final game of Bryant's career is over $450 at StubHub.com, and even more than that at various 3rd-party retailers, as high as $650.
You can bet there will be special merchandise, TV specials, DVDs and all manner of ways to turn Kobe’s final season into a cash cow. While they will surely miss Kobe’s skills next season, I’m sure that Lakers' executives are delighted to have something to talk about other than their record.
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