"One absolutely has something to do with the other," said David Carter, president of Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. Kobe Bryant's "marketing makeover is underway."
Indeed, two-and-a-half years after Mr. Bryant lost $11.5 million in endorsement contracts with several blue-chip marketers following his arrest on sexual assault charges-which were later dropped-the National Basketball Association superstar appears poised to rejoin the advertising world that has mostly shunned him since.
Mr. Bryant scored an astounding 81 points in a Jan. 22 game, leading his Los Angeles Lakers to a win over the Toronto Raptors. It was the second-highest individual scoring effort in league history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point scoring night in 1962.
"Here's what the 81-point game does: It elevates him above the three or four other superstars in the game," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports marketing firm SportsCorp. "Remember that companies look for two things in an athlete. They want an athlete to have a good image-Kobe has done a pretty good job of laying low and repairing his image the last two-plus years-and they want the athlete to generate attention on the playing field."
Mr. Bryant was charged with sexually assaulting a Colorado hotel worker in June, 2003. The charges were eventually dropped, but Mr. Bryant admitted he had cheated on his wife with the young woman, with some salacious details of the sexual encounter later becoming public, and he did pay an undisclosed amount to settle the case out of court.
No change of heart
As a result, family-oriented companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp. dropped him as an endorser. Even with his new status, however, the fast-feeder doesn't seem likely to have a change of heart. "As far as Kobe Bryant is concerned, the strategy within the U.S. is not focused on a single player so it really is a moot point," said a spokesman. "We have no plans to sign him, but that would apply to, at this point in time, any single player."
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman wouldn't speculate on Mr. Bryant's future with the marketer, but said, "We don't have a relationship with him." Coke has an agreement with roundball phenom LeBron James.
Still, there are telltale signs that Mr. Bryant is emerging from marketing purgatory.
Nike, which had signed Mr. Bryant to a five-year, $45 million contract only two weeks before the incident in Colorado, kept him under contract but barely used him in its advertising. The Swoosh did run a black-and-white print ad in Sports Illustrated last summer with Mr. Bryant's image, and plans to use him extensively in two weeks when it launches a signature shoe line from the Lakers' star.
Nike did not return a call seeking comment.
The NBA isn't shy about backing what is arguably the greatest player in the game today. Following the 81-point game, the league's marketing machine went into high gear. It re-broadcast the game three times last week on NBA TV, and also made the game available for purchase on the Internet at the new Google Video Store.
Moreover, the league quickly rushed new jerseys into its New York-based NBA Store and on NBAstore.com. Mr. Bryant wears No. 8; fans can now purchase white Lakers' jerseys with the No. 81 and "Kobe" on the back. Special gold t-shirts are also available. And Spalding, which dropped Mr. Bryant as an endorser, is creating a commemorative basketball featuring an image of Mr. Bryant and his stats from the game, which is expected to be available later this season.
But to come all the way back to his former endorsement glory will still take time, says Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.
"Family-oriented consumer companies are still going to be reticent," Mr. Swangard said. "The corporate world realizes that what he did, as transgressions go, is a little more damaging than getting caught drunk behind the wheel, or stealing, or gambling."
Contributing: Kate MacArthur
What Kobe lost
After marketers dropped Kobe Bryant in the wake of his 2003 arrest on sexual-assault charges, here’s what he lost in endorsements:
Coca-Cola (Sprite) $5 million
McDonald’s $3 million
Spalding $1.5 million
Nutella $2 million
Total: $11.5 million