Swoosh. With the stroke of a pen, an 18-year-old high school basketball player who has yet to step onto a professional court landed a seven-year athletic shoe and apparel deal with a reported value of $90 million. LeBron James’ business agent said the bidding war, won by Nike, turned on which company could make the NBA’s anticipated No. 1 draft pick the most comfortable -- and he wasn’t talking solely about the fit of Nike shoes and sweats.
To put James’ good fortune into perspective: Michael Jordan’s first endorsement deal was worth $1 million. And at about $12 million, James’ three-year NBA contract will be worth more than golfer Annika Sorenstam -- who failed to make the cut playing against men in a PGA Tour event Friday -- won in a decade on the women’s tour.
But before James moves shoes off store shelves, he must sell himself to mercurial fans. That job got tougher Thursday night with word that James probably would begin his career in Cleveland, rather than in a bigger city like Los Angeles or New York. And rookies, however talented, must struggle to make an impact -- Laker star Kobe Bryant didn’t start until his third season.
Meantime, filling Jordan’s marketing shoes will be hard in a stalled economy that has dulled demand for pricey athletic gear. Though unseemly street swagger sells some stars’ goods to a segment of fans, young males wanted to be like Mike because of Jordan’s gravity-defying play -- not to mention those six championship rings.
James stands at an uncomfortable juncture of commerce and competition. Nike made a calculated business decision to keep him from rivals Reebok and Adidas. But what happens if he starts to self-destruct -- or a young fan mugs the kid next door for a pair of his designer shoes?
Nike’s millions add to the pressure building on a teenager who graduates this weekend from high school. His family, friends and business advisors should stay focused on what’s best for LeBron James. But for now, the Akron, Ohio, teenager should jump in his Hummer and enjoy the ride. Jay Leno quipped Thursday night that James, immediately after signing the Nike deal, “announced his retirement from pro basketball. He’s now looking for a $45-million sock deal.”