Not only did LeBron James achieve redemption on the basketball court Thursday night, winning his first NBA title by leading the Miami Heat to a 121-106 win over Oklahoma City in Game 5 of the finals, but the superstar likely earned a redemption of sorts in the marketing world.
Nike , in fact, rushed out a spot Thursday night, minutes after the final game ended, called "The Ring Maker." The 60-second spot shows a jeweler crafting a championship ring for Mr. James, while highlights -- and lowlights -- of his career play on a TV in the background.
Mr. James has been vilified for the better part of the past two years after the debacle known as "The Decision" -- his hour-long announcement on national TV in the summer of 2010 about leaving Cleveland as a free agent to join Miami -- and for a subpar performance in the 2011 finals, when Miami lost to Dallas and Mr. James was criticized for not being a clutch performer at the end of games.
It was a major blow to a player once considered the next Michael Jordan both on the court and in terms of lucrative endorsement deals.
This year, he averaged almost 30 points a game in the finals, squashing the "not clutch" label by playing with painful leg cramps and hitting a critical three-point shot late in Game 4, and finishing off Game 5 with 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds -- en route to being named Most Valuable Player.
"An NBA championship will finally brand Lebron a winner, probably the most coveted character trait a company looks for in a product endorser," said New York-based sports marketing expert Robert Tuchman. "It's going to lift him into the endorsement stratosphere where only Peyton Manning lives."
There's no question Mr. James had a much lower marketing profile this year. Well, as low as someone still making $30 million a year in endorsements can have. Of his major partners, including McDonald's, Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, VitaminWater and Sheets Energy Strips, he appeared in ads during the finals for only State Farm and Nike . The State Farm spot was a public service announcement by the insurance provider promoting efforts to help students graduate, and the latter a teaser spot for Nike 's Hyperdunk basketball shoe that debuts next week.
It's possible some of Mr. James' marketing partners are putting more effort into the bigger audience for next month's Olympics, as Sprite did when it launched its largest global campaign ever in February, the "Uncontainable Game," featuring Mr. James and a host of NBA stars who jet around the world to find undiscovered basketball talent. The spots are being shown in 27 countries. But it's also possible some were reticent about the possibility of a second consecutive (and third overall) NBA Finals loss for Mr. James.
That should no longer be an issue.
"His existing sponsoring partners will have much greater latitude on how they use and position the LeBron brand again, kind of an image reboot rather than a true redemption," said Robert Boland, academic chair and clinical associate professor of sports management at New York University.
So how much more on top of that $30 million could Mr. James make in endorsements? "Minimum, 30% to 40%," Mr. Tuchman said.
That nets out to somewhere between $9 million and $12 million, right where sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman also estimated. Mr. Dorfman, the executive creative director at San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising, said that Mr. James' endorsement portfolio still has room for a luxury automobile, telecom or financial institution, and that he will benefit greatly by an even higher-profile stage -- playing for Team USA in the London Olympics barely a month after winning the NBA title.
"He's about to expose his brand to an international market," Mr. Dorfman said of Mr. James, whose No. 6 Miami Heat jersey is the No. 3 seller outside the U.S., after Los Angeles Lakers' star Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. "China is booming right now; lots of money to be made there. I also think his team is looking at equity and ownership deals rather than standard pitchman opportunities."
Mr. James and his marketing company, LRMR, already own a piece of the Liverpool FC soccer team. LRMR did not respond to a request for comment before this story was published.