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Kobe Finds Sole Mate

Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant has a shoe again, and Nike has its Michael Jordan replica.

The endorsement deal that had been expected for months, since rival Reebok withdrew from the competition for Bryant, or perhaps for a year, since Adidas and Bryant split last summer, was confirmed Monday by a source close to Bryant.

In the wake of Jordan’s retirement and Nike’s reported seven-year, $90-million deal with high schooler LeBron James, the company reached agreement with Bryant for between $40 million and $45 million over five years, according to a shoe industry insider.

The same insider said that Bryant, who spent several days recently at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., would receive royalties on a planned signature shoe, which would boost the total value of the deal, though not necessarily into the range of the James contract.

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Bryant, in seven NBA seasons on the league’s highest-profile team, has won three championships, twice was first-team All-NBA and five times was an All-Star. James led his high school team to the Ohio state title.

The disparity, in part, speaks to sluggish sales of Bryant’s Adidas shoes. That relationship ended abruptly and with a handful of conditions that limited Bryant’s options and cost him plenty. After buying himself out of the Adidas contract and factoring in lost fees, Bryant could have lost as much as $18 million in a season spent playing other brands, none of which paid him.

“I don’t know if we have any proof that Kobe’s endorsement sells shoes,” said Rick Burton, executive director of Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “No disrespect to Kobe -- he’s a great guy -- but historically, if you look at what happened at Adidas, there’s not proof [of his ability to sell shoes]. Kobe could be justified in saying the product wasn’t right, the marketing wasn’t right, that it wasn’t Kobe, it was the product. But, if we take a historical perspective, we don’t know that Kobe’s name attached to a shoe will cause it to sell.”

He settled on Nike in February, about the time Reebok went public with its withdrawal from negotiations and about the time Bryant concluded a run of nine games in which he scored at least 40 points. Although the season ended poorly for the Lakers -- they lost in the Western Conference semifinals to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs -- Bryant averaged a career-high 30 points and cemented his status as one of the league’s marquee players.

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Bryant has been famously protective of his personal life, at times scowling at reporters who asked questions about his family. A Nike source said the company had asked that Bryant soften his image, and Bryant recently appeared on national television to say he had reconciled with his father, with whom he had feuded for two years.

Still, his standing with NBA fans and the shoe-buying public at times seems tenuous. He is routinely booed in Philadelphia, his hometown. His white No. 8 jersey was the NBA’s top seller last season, yet it was James who received the bigger endorsement deal from Nike.

“You’ve heard a lot being made about street credibility this last month or so,” said David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. “I think both of those guys have a tremendous amount of street credibility. It’s just that their streets are in different neighborhoods.”

James grew up without a father in a poor area of Akron, Ohio; Bryant was upper-middle class in Italy and suburban Philadelphia.

“Clearly, LeBron is much more important in terms of the direction of Nike,” Carter said. “In terms of the Nike brand name and the persona of that brand, they’re really trying to reach that young audience. LeBron actually speaks to that particular Nike purchaser, more than a guy like Kobe. If you think about Kobe, forget the fact he’s got to share air time with Shaq and the whole L.A. scene. He’s multilingual, really good-looking guy, really very Hollywood in a lot of ways. Nine times out of 10, that’s extremely favorable. This is the one time it’s not going to play to his advantage. He’s arrived too much to be someone that Nike can really mold into its next great personality. I think it’s really about Nike’s ability to manufacture personalities.”

Regarding James, Carter said, the process is about Nike “taking this guy from the very beginning, just like they did Jordan, and ... making him interchangeable with Nike. With Kobe, that would never be the case. It’s not so much that Kobe has a negative brand connotation. If anything, he’s much more established and he’s done nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to harm himself.”

It was the theme among the experts -- the deals being more about what James could do than what Bryant, perhaps, couldn’t.

“LeBron is being paid for his potential, which is unknown,” Burton said. “And Kobe’s potential has, to some degree -- and this is the tricky part of it -- already been realized.”

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Potential counts equally in marketing and the NBA, Burton said.

“They’re intertwined,” he said. “We don’t know what LeBron is going to do. We don’t know how the street, meaning kids on the street, are going to respond to him. We don’t know how he’s going to perform. We don’t know how his shoe is going to perform. We do know, essentially, how the street has responded to Kobe. He’s not necessarily seen as a ‘street’ guy. But we know he’s probably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. So Kobe’s potential is somewhat clear. We expect him to continue to be a great basketball player, but the mystery on Kobe is not as enticing as the mystery on LeBron.”

The extended nature of the negotiations has become habit for Bryant. Whereas most NBA players eagerly joined the senior men’s team that probably will play in next summer’s Olympic Games, he dragged USA Basketball through an unusually tedious process before consenting. And the Lakers’ offer of a three-year, $54.8-million extension has been on the table for nearly a year. Those close to Bryant expect him to opt out of his contract after next season and explore free agency, but also expect him ultimately to re-sign with the Lakers.

On June 12, Bryant had surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn labrum, a procedure that figures to keep him from playing in August’s Olympic qualifying tournament. He should be recovered by the Lakers’ training camp, which will open about Oct. 1.

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Top Deals

*--* Some of the top single-company endorsement deals (in millions of dollars) for sports figures. Woods, James, Duval deals with Nike; Williams with Reebok: Athlete Sport Earn Yrs Sign Tiger Woods Golf $100 5 2000 LeBron James Basketball $90 7 2003 Venus Williams Tennis $40 5 2000 David Duval Golf $28 4 2001 Note: Some athletes have multiple endorsement deals that may add up to more than figures above Researched by Times librarian SCOTT WILSON

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