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NIKE COUNTS ON LI'L PENNY TO BOOST BASKETBALL: REEBOK, ADIDAS FACE POTENTIAL ENDORSER WOES

By Published on .

Nike will once again call upon spokespuppet Li'l Penny to talk up its basketball products this fall and winter, as the athletic footwear industry looks to reignite the sluggish roundball segment.

Two years after Nike twinned NBA star Anfernee Hardaway with his alter ego, Li'l Penny is about to reach greater heights of celebrity. Beyond Nike TV advertising from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., Crown Publishers has a Li'l' Penny book and Playmates Toys has two Li'l Penny dolls coming to market.

DUE IN NOVEMBER

In a spot scheduled to break in November, Li'l Penny is reading from his book "Knee High & Livin' Large," which Crown will release that month. About the same time, Playmates will issue the dolls, a 9-inch version with cell phone and smoking jacket and a 14-inch talking doll, with voice supplied by comedian Chris Rock.

Crown and Playmates will support with their own publicity, and local retailer and radio promotions.

Li'l Penny may in fact carry more clout in the industry than the flesh-and-blood NBA stars suiting up for Nike's rivals.

TROUBLE FOR IVERSON

No. 2 Reebok International has The Answer, endorsed by last season's rookie phenom Allen Iverson, but his marketability is being questioned after a recent run-in with the law. Reebok also has Shawn Kemp, whose recent squabbles with his team have included threats to sit out the 1997-98 season.

No. 3 Adidas America has a hot brand but an unproven spokes-man in budding superstar Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers; No. 4 Fila USA has Grant Hill, an icon who has the charisma to move shoes, but the company must improve on last year's line.

The basketball segment has sagged lately. Its sales rose 17% in 1996, accounting for 21% of last year's $14 billion in athletic foot-wear sales, according to the NPD Group. But industry experts say '97 back-to-school sales of basketball shoes were down 10%, with consumers scoffing at prices that last year were tolerated.

The hope is that the fall marketing surge, plus lower-price offerings, will get product moving again.

Nike and Reebok also are counting on growth in the women's sector.

Nike has a women's basketball campaign in the works for fall, created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. And Reebok has Heater Advertising, Boston, working on a TV spot promoting its ties to the American Basketball League, and is working with the Lady Footlocker retail chain on a co-op spot to introduce a signature shoe from Women's National Basketball Association star Rebecca Lobo. Both will hit in October.

COMPETITION FROM JORDAN

Nike's other major fall basketball marketing push, of course, is the introduction of the Jordan brand (AA, Sept. 1).

Wall Street analysts have fretted that the collection endorsed by Michael Jordan could cannibalize swoosh-branded stuff. But Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, said that while the lower-price Jordan basketball shoes may steal some share, Nike's strategy to limit retail orders on Jordan product will curb cannibalization.

Reebok plans a major push behind The Answer, which hits just before Thanksgiving. Support includes TV spots from Heater and a new point-of-purchase concept called Reebok Virtual Recreation.

A Reebok spokesman said the company will turn to other endorsers should Mr. Kemp

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