CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard has already repaid Adidas' investment in him by knocking LeBron James out of the playoffs and thwarting rival Nike's dream of a big-stage showdown between its two biggest hoops endorsers, Mr. James and Kobe Bryant.
But can the prodigiously talented basketball behemoth make it as a leading ad man for other companies as well?
"I think we're seeing that transformation now," said Element 79 Management Director Michael Chase, who casts sports stars in Gatorade ads at the Omnicom Group-owned agency and earlier did the same for Nike at Wieden & Kennedy. "He's established himself as a dominant force."
From bit player to leading role?
To this point Mr. Howard has largely been cast as a bit player -- a lot. In addition to Adidas, which has featured him, he has endorsement deals with the likes of McDonald's, Wrigley, T-Mobile, Warner Bros. and DC Comics, the Milk Processor Education Program ("Got Milk?"), and Coca-Cola's Glaceau. That's believed to be the largest number of deals for any NBA player, but marketers often relegate him to a supporting role in their ads.
T-Mobile, for instance, recently ran a spot that showed Mr. Howard making a cameo as Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade and Charles Barkley played a basketball video game. Mr. Howard was shown on the phone, trying to implore the gaming-inept Mr. Barkley not to use his avatar in the game. McDonald's put him in one ad, and on packaging, as a means of promoting its Olympic sponsorship (Mr. Howard was on the U.S. team). And Glaceau has kept him relatively idle, ironically throwing its focus of late behind a Vitaminwater campaign raising the specter of a LeBron/Kobe matchup.
Mr. Chase, for one, said he feels that's about to change. He said he would rank Mr. Howard's endorsement appeal behind that of only two current NBA players, Mr. Wade and Mr. James, and ahead of the likes of Mr. Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul.
Working in Mr. Howard's favor, he said, is his youth, charisma and character.
As a 23-year-old seemingly still improving, a sponsor could enjoy a decade or longer of elite on-court performance. Like Shaquille O'Neal before him, Mr. Howard is the rare NBA 7-footer who exudes charisma in spades, as he did at last year's Slam Dunk Contest, when he donned a Superman cape and incorporated amusing props to enhance his jaw-droppingly athletic dunks. (He also showed grace by letting his Lilliputian opponent, Nate Robinson, leap over him to win the title.) And he's also devoutly religious and notably charitable, which may comfort some marketers squeamish about exposure to the next Michael Vick (or even the next Mr. Bryant, who lost much of his backing after a sexual-assault allegation that was ultimately dropped).
What makes Mr. Howard even more attractive to would-be sponsors is the very large stage on which his coming-out party is playing out. Perhaps driven by anticipation of a LeBron/Kobe finals, NBA-playoff TV ratings are up 19% this season. The conference-finals series in which Mr. Howard's Orlando Magic ousted Mr. James' Cleveland Cavaliers drew 8.6 million total viewers. Further evidence of Mr. Howard's rising profile: His jersey sales have risen to No. 6 during the playoffs from No. 10 during the season.
The finals between the Magic and Mr. Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers start Thursday on ABC.
Adidas, which has already made Mr. Howard the centerpiece of an online video site and featured him in TV creative, naturally feels like it made a pretty good bet when it signed him out of high school in 2004, shortly after the Magic picked him first in the NBA draft.
"We hope what he's doing in the playoffs will wake other brands up," said Ryan Morlan, global director of basketball communications for Adidas. "He has the performance and he has the personality. You can market him like a high flier."
Mr. Morlan said Mr. Howard has been Adidas' single most featured athlete in the past 18 months, and he'll continue to be as the brand makes him the centerpiece of viral-video and social-media initiatives during the NBA Finals.
"There's been this forever debate whether a big guy can sell shoes," Mr. Morlan said, "and we feel Dwight is calling that into question."