Inside the ultra-competitive world of Kobe Bryant merchandise after his death
The rush to monetize the death of Kobe Bryant started in the hours after the helicopter carrying the retired Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others slammed into a hillside in Calabasas on a foggy morning last month.
As first responders picked through the wreckage, anonymous speculators registered scores of web domains connected to the tragedy. The address lovekobebryant.com, created about three hours after the crash, went on sale for a buy-now price of $99,999. Among the scores of the site registrations that followed within an hour or two were kobebryanthelicopter.com ($50,000), kobebryanthalloffame.com ($20,000) and kobedead.com ($5,000).
The surge of activity that day extended to the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office, where people from across the country filed to trademark Bryant-connected phrases like “Just Kobe It” and “What would Kobe do?”
In the month since Bryant’s death, the demand for items connected to him hasn’t abated. Beyond the web domains and trademark registrations, T-shirts and jerseys are for sale. They’re joined by newspapers, posters, books, paintings, magazines, trading cards, hats, autographed basketballs, hoodies, jars of Nutella with Bryant’s picture and limited-edition Beanie Babies from 1999 with his original No. 8 embroidered on the back.
“People flock to celebrity memorabilia because it gives them something tangible to hold onto and a sense of connection with a person they love who has just passed away,” said Denver D’Rozario, a marketing professor at Howard University in Washington who studies the use of dead celebrities in marketing. “The death of any celebrity is going to be memorialized by some fans, but when that celebrity dies tragically, that memorialization, the number of people who want to memorialize them and the intensity of the memorialization increases.”
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If a piece of memorabilia is linked to Bryant — regardless of whether it’s real or fake, licensed or unlicensed, high-priced or dirt-cheap — someone, somewhere is selling it.
“It really changes the dynamics when someone passes and they go into that icon status, especially when they die at a young age,” said Darren Julien, president and chief executive of Julien’s Auctions, whose firm has sold items from celebrities including Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. “We always have this version of Marilyn Monroe as a young, vibrant life. It’s the same with Kobe Bryant. He’ll never age.”
Fans attending the memorial for Bryant and his daughter at Staples Center on Monday were given a T-shirt, event program, ticket and pin. Some of the items, offered individually or as a package, were put up for sale on eBay.
One package was listed for $608 on Wednesday before being removed for violating the site’s rules. As fast as the keepsakes from the memorial service were listed, the site deleted them.
“The items are prohibited under eBay’s policies,” a company spokesman said in a statement to The Times. “Any items that attempt to profit from human tragedy or suffering are not allowed to be sold on eBay.”
The site still lists more than 70,000 Bryant-related items for sale. They include merchandise like black hoodies selling for $54.99 that are emblazoned with the logo for the Mamba Sports Academy on the front and Gianna Bryant’s name and No. 2 on the back.
However, the hoodies were not authorized, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who did not want to be identified. Neither are a slew of similar products. The small selection of merchandise the academy offers on its website doesn’t include player names.
The hoodies are the tip of a vast array of unlicensed clothing honoring Bryant that’s for sale on eBay, Amazon and other sites. Some of the T-shirts read “Mamba Forever,” referencing Bryant’s longtime nickname, “Legends are forever” and “Mamba Out.” They include his silhouette. Years of life. Numbers. They use purple and gold, the colors of the Lakers, but are careful to avoid reprinting the team’s name or logo.
Some of the efforts echo Bryant’s entrepreneurial spirit. After his final game in 2016, he sold “Mamba Out” T-shirts in purple and gold on his website for $25, a small part of his business empire that extended far beyond basketball.
These days, third parties offer bodysuits printed with Bryant’s No. 24, reflective safety vests with his daughter’s name and number, even a “million-dollar bill” with his face selling for 99 cents on eBay.
“There are these kind of opportunities in the short term where people seize the moment and exploit his name, image and likeness,” said a high-profile intellectual property attorney with extensive experience in sports matters who spoke on the condition he wasn’t identified because of the stature of the Bryant situation. “You get the immediate bad actors doing things at a low level, but the system eventually prevents any long-term control or damage and gives the family control over it and sets things right.”
The attorney noted that Bryant’s estate can challenge bad-faith web-domain registrations through arbitration and file objections to trademarks linked to him.
An attempt to reach a representative of Bryant’s business interests wasn’t successful.
The eagerness for all things Bryant is evident in Amazon’s book section. His 2018 book “Mamba Mentality” that detailed his approach to basketball is among the 40 bestselling books of any category on the site. And earlier this week, a third-party seller on the site offered a copy of the young adult book “Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof,” which Bryant created, for $117.99.
“Most of this is emotional,” D’Rozario said of the rush to purchase Bryant items.
There are copies of newspaper special sections honoring Bryant — $15 each. Commemorative magazines by the Los Angeles Times, ESPN and Sports Illustrated are for sale too. Same with newspapers from the day after Bryant died.
Higher-end merchandise is trickling into the market. Julien’s Auctions will sell a handful of Bryant items in Beverly Hills on April 30. They include a full home uniform Bryant wore in the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers — estimated to sell for $10,000 to $20,0000 — and Bryant’s handprints in cement from the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
“A lot of people contact us after someone passes,” said Julien, who sees prices for celebrity memorabilia increase 10 or 20 times after they die. “That’s the investor side of it. A lot of people think it’s morbid to profit off a dead person, but it’s not. A lot of people invest in this market. People are looking for opportune times to part with items. It’s no different than buying a stock or a bond.”
Julien said the memorabilia came not from Bryant’s family but from “private investors,” much of it obtained by the firm before the helicopter crash.
The issue was sensitive for Bryant after a stash of his memorabilia led to a public dispute with his parents in 2013. New Jersey-based Goldin Auctions sued Bryant over the planned auction of dozens of items including his 1996 McDonald’s All-American ring, his freshman basketball uniform from Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., and a signed basketball from the NBA All-Star game in 2000.
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Pamela Bryant, his mother, consigned the items to the auction house in exchange for a $450,000 advance. The same day in April 2013 that Goldin Auctions announced the memorabilia would be auctioned, attorneys for Kobe Bryant sent the company a cease-and-desist letter. It referred to the memorabilia as “illegally obtained” and “stolen property.”
The parties reached a confidential settlement in June 2013 and Bryant’s parents issued a public apology. Goldin Auctions retained several items that were auctioned in July 2013. One of Bryant’s game-used uniforms from Lower Merion went for more than $50,000 and a 2000 Lakers NBA championship ring he gifted to his mother sold for $107,000.
Those numbers probably will increase, part of the cold calculation of a high-profile person with fans around the world meeting a sudden end.
“When it comes to a dead celebrity,” Julien said, “the prices spike.”
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