Could LeBron-Kobe Showdown Be Bad News for Adidas, Gatorade?

NBA's Dream Matchup Might Be Official League Sponsors' Nightmare

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CHICAGO ( -- The National Basketball Association could just be headed toward a dream Finals matchup between its two most marketable stars, one that will result in massive buzz, bigger TV ratings -- and a nightmare for two of its biggest sponsors, Adidas and Gatorade.

NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Credit: AP
The problem for NBA's official merchandise and uniform supplier, Adidas, and its official sports beverage, Pepsi's Gatorade, is that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Cleveland Cavaliers stalwart LeBron James are the two most prominent endorsers of their archrivals, Nike and Coca-Cola's Glaceau, neither of which paid nearly as much to the NBA for the privilege of sponsoring the league and its playoffs.

In their giddiness, neither Glaceau nor Nike has bothered to wait for the matchup to materialize to trumpet their stars -- and activate some brand messaging. Mr. James' Cavaliers still need to vanquish the Orlando Magic (led by Adidas endorser Dwight Howard), and Mr. Bryant's Lakers, which barely beat the injury-riddled Houston Rockets in the second round, still need to take out the Denver Nuggets. But that hasn't stopped Glaceau's Vitaminwater from airing a spot with the two stars' partisans bickering over which player is superior and inviting viewers to follow the "Great Debate" on Facebook. Not to be outdone, Nike's latest ad features Muppet-like likenesses of the two, with Mr. Bryant's puppet irritating Mr. James' by constantly invoking his three championship rings. (Mr. James has yet to win an NBA title.)

Magnified by the media
If both players manage to lead their teams to the NBA Finals, as expected, those efforts will likely be magnified exponentially by a media narrative that's likely to obsess over all things Kobe and LeBron.

"It's all people are going to be talking about," said Ben Sturner, CEO of the Leverage Agency, a sports-marketing firm. "You're going to ask people afterwards who's the official sponsor [in those categories], and they're not going to say Gatorade or Adidas."

A Gatorade spokeswoman said the company is not worried about Vitaminwater, which is not a marketing partner of the NBA, stealing its costly sponsorship's thunder, even though it's counting on the Finals as a springboard for its upcoming campaign for the crucial summer season. "We're not concerned with what our competitors are doing," she said.

Adidas, which has been bleeding market share in basketball to Nike and its Brand Jordan division, likewise downplayed the potential Nike boomlet, saying that the buzz from the Finals will benefit it as the league's official outfitter. "Star players and talented teams raise consumer interest, spark TV ratings and stimulate the jersey business, all of which is great for us."

Mr. Sturner, however, said he knows better. "I guarantee you," he said, "that Adidas is rooting for Orlando."

Players or leagues?
The issue touches on an age-old debate among sports marketers as to whether to sponsor players or leagues. League and event deals offer guaranteed exposure and less of the risk of injury or embarrassment that can come from sponsoring an individual. But the right player deal generally offers exponentially more upside.

Nike has almost always backed players and tended to come out ahead doing so. It tends to be the marketer most associated with the Olympics, despite not shelling out for a top-level sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee, although it does cut deals with individual countries' sports federations to ensure athletes don its wares in many events. (Likewise, Nike pays to be a "marketing partner" of the NBA in order to allow its athletes to wear their Adidas-branded pro jerseys in commercials.)

Occasionally the strategy does backfire: The most touted athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt -- were not Nike endorsers, and the company suffered a major headache when its lead football endorser, Michael Vick, went to prison for running a dog-fighting ring.

Adidas and Gatorade have tried to have it both ways, as each marketer backed the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett, a star of last year's championship, who missed this year's playoffs with an injury. And Adidas has its major endorsement deal with Orlando's Mr. Howard, who represents the largest obstacle to a LeBron-Kobe Nikefest in the Finals.

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