With No Ring, James Is Still No Jordan

Behind the Continuing Quest to Turn the NBA's Biggest Endorser Into a Global Icon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AdAge.com) -- Lebron James is the highest-paid endorser in the National Basketball Association, earning an estimated $25 million a year for his off-the-court marketing associations.

Yet his jersey is only the No. 3 seller worldwide this year behind Kevin Garnett of the 2008 champion Boston Celtics and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, who lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. In fact, as he prepares for his sixth season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mr. James' No. 23 jersey has been the league's best-seller just once -- in 2003-04, following his rookie season.
Lebron James
Lebron James Credit: Kevin Sullivan

Moral of the story: Everybody loves a winner, and in some respects that's what it's going to take for Mr. James to achieve his stated goal two years ago of becoming a global icon, along the lines of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali, by the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"I think there's something to that, yes," said Maverick Carter, Mr. James' lifelong friend and the CEO of the basketball superstar's marketing company, LRMR Marketing, based in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. "To an extent, championships define athletes."

In the summer of 2006, Advertising Age was the only media invited to an inaugural marketing summit in Akron hosted by LRMR and including Mr. James' marketing partners: Nike, Coca-Cola Co., and Microsoft, among others.

Back then, LRMR was a fledgling company. Today, it boasts clients such as Ted Ginn Jr., a top-10 National Football League draft pick two years ago, and O.J. Mayo, a top-10 NBA pick this past June who, with LRMR's guidance, became the first rookie to nail down a sneaker deal, with Nike.

But LRMR is really about Mr. James. In 2006, Messrs. James and Carter, along with fellow childhood friends and now business partners Randy Mims and Richard Paul, unveiled a marketing theme and mantra: 08/08/08, the date the 2008 Summer Olympic Games began in Beijing, China. The goal was to make Mr. James a global icon by the time the games ended.

"I never said that," Mr. Carter says now with a laugh. "I never said 'global icon.' That was a personal goal by LeBron. I know he said it, but from a business standpoint, that wasn't our goal. Our goal was to raise his stature and status coming out of the Olympics, and I think we did that."

However, it was Mr. Bryant, by all accounts, who was the most popular American player in Beijing, where the U.S. -- dubbed the Redeem Team -- won the gold medal and impressed everyone by being humble, diplomatic and highly visible supporters of Team USA across all sports. But it didn't seem to convert to media exposure in the U.S., where Michael Phelps became the poster child for American success and much of the focus was on China's performance as host.

"They've come a long way, but they're not there yet," says Don Hinchey, vice president of Denver-based sports-marketing firm the Bonham Group. "Two years is a short amount of time to achieve such a heady goal. Plus, I was underwhelmed by the post-Olympics adulation for the Redeem Team. I expected more -- for all the players, but especially LeBron. Kobe seemed to overshadow him in Chinese popularity and media exposure, and then Michael Phelps captured the country's hearts."

Lack of spontaneity?
Mr. Hinchey also touched on what has been a criticism, albeit a small one, of the often-deliberate approach to the marketing of Mr. James. "There's a sense that the planned approach may be at odds with the 'spontaneous combustion' that global icons display," Mr. Hinchey said. "The marketing strategy doesn't quite match the effortless grace of one of his three-point shots."

Little has changed since 2006 in terms of endorsers. Mr. James still has his deals with Nike, MSN, Upper Deck and Coca-Cola, although the association with Coke changed from Sprite to Vitaminwater. Mr. Carter confirmed that lebron.msn.com will be relaunched and that a new partnership with MSN will be formed to split ad dollars.

Mr. Carter also dismissed rumors that Mr. James was unhappy with Coca-Cola and would prefer to be with Pepsi. "We've always been very happy with Coke," Mr. Carter said. "Coke is a great, worldwide partner. The switch to Vitaminwater went perfectly."
Maverick Carter, CEO of LeBron James' marketing company, LRMR
Maverick Carter, CEO of LeBron James' marketing company, LRMR Credit: Tim Klein

In the past 18 months, LRMR also has signed deals for Mr. James with Cub Cadet and State Farm and taken a financial stake in Cannondale Bicycle Co -- again, mostly low-profile. Mr. Carter said of State Farm: "It's a great American company. It brings a mature side of LeBron out."

Asked about the slow pace of marketing deals, Mr. Carter reiterated what he said two years ago -- that LRMR is looking for partnerships, not endorsements, and that is one of the reasons why Mr. James still doesn't have a deal with a financial-services firm or a car, for instance.

"We've talked to GM, Chrysler ... we spent many months with them. It just hasn't been right," Mr. Carter said. "But there's nothing that says we have to have a car deal. I don't have a map in my office of categories we have to hit. The right partnership will be long-term, and it will include us being very involved in the creative process of how LeBron will be used against the brand."

Out there
And it's not like Mr. James won't have any visibility. A documentary about Mr. James and four of his close friends and high-school basketball teammates, "More Than a Game," will be coming out, and he will be paired with NBA legend Julius "Dr. J" Erving in a new ad campaign for Turner Sports.

Mr. James also has his charitable foundation in Akron, which last year donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars, including $88,000 to Boys Hope Girls Hope of Cleveland and $56,649 to the Akron Area YMCA.

"I think he's tracking well," said David Carter, principal of Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group and Executive Director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. (He is not related to Maverick Carter.)

"To date, he has handled himself and those matters within his control -- his performance on the court, his dealings off the court, his charity functions -- quite well," David Carter said. "To achieve greatness on a global scale, however, does take winning."

Mr. Hinchey agreed.

"He needs championships," he said. "You look at that triumvirate of what is generally considered global sports icons -- Ali, Jordan, Woods -- and one thing they all had in common was championships. So what's the strategy going forward? Win a championship or two, maintain his status as an upstanding citizen and embrace his softer side to forge the connection with fans' hearts as well as their minds."

Move to New York?
And there you have it: As with all brands, it's about the product as much as the marketing smarts and communication efforts that surround it. That just leaves the question of what it will take for Mr. James to win a championship. He has an unabashed love of the New York Yankees -- he even wears a Yankees hat at Cleveland Indians games -- and there have been rumors that he wants to come to the New York area to play for the Knicks or Nets when his three-year, $60 million deal with Cleveland is up in 2010. But signing with either team would only give him a brighter spotlight, not necessarily a greater chance to win an NBA title.

He might actually have a better chance to return to the NBA Finals (the Cavs made it in 2007, losing to the San Antonio Spurs) by staying in Cleveland. While Mr. James was in Beijing, the Cavaliers made a key trade to add point guard Maurice Williams to the team. Mr. Williams is regarded as one of the better combination guards in the NBA; he can score (17.2 points per game with Milwaukee last season) and distribute (6.3 assists per game).

"He'll have some help this year," said Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers beat writer for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "Is that enough to win a championship? I still think they're one more star short. They have their superstar in LeBron. Now they need one more player."
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