Industry experts agree that James and others are leading the way in these new business paradigms, much the same way Michael Jordan created the roadmap for athletes in business.
"LeBron knows he's got the potential to move product, so why not be able to benefit from that in every way you can," said Scott Becher, managing director of the sports and entertainment practice at Zimmerman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale. "Your upside is dramatically higher when you've got skin in the game."
James' biggest endorsement deal is with Nike, which signed him to a $90 million contract initially when he entered the NBA, with an extension in 2010 that now pays him more than $10 million a year.
Industry reports estimate James' McDonald's deals ring up $4 million a year, while Coca-Cola pays him $16 million over six years to represent Sprite and Powerade. Add to that $6 million from Upper Deck over a five-year span. That doesn't include deals with State Farm, Dunkin' Brands in Asia, luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet or the newest deal with Samsung.
James has the top selling shoe and jersey this year. Nike sold $90 million in LeBron shoes wholesale last year, which translates into about $175 million in retail sales, said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource. While LeBron's sales are about double what Bryant sold, they're still a fraction of the $1 billion Jordan sold last year.
But James is breaking other records with Nike's launch of the LeBron X this fall, with prices ranging from $180 to $270. At the top range, the LeBron X+ is the most expensive shoe on the market with technology to measure an athlete's performance.
Brands like Nike are attracted to James because of his global star power.
"We know LeBron is a special talent," said Brian Strong, a Nike spokesman. "He connects with the consumer."
Nowhere is that more evident than on the Miami Heat's recent trip to China. James was mobbed by adoring fans chanting his name like a rock star. This was James' ninth visit to the country and his second in the last month.
In-between two exhibition games, James crammed in a busy schedule of promotional appearances. On his last day in Shanghai, James posed for pictures with Sprite's newly designed aluminum can featuring his image. Then he was quickly shuttled across town for an event with Dunkin' Brands, where he answered questions from kids, engaged in a chopsticks contest and sunk a few baskets.
James' Dunkin' deal, which was announced in March, involves his role as a brand ambassador for Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins in China, Taiwan, South Korea and India.
James' ability to connect with consumers is often most evident when he is interacting with kids like at the Dunkin' event where 9- and 10-year-olds got to interview their idol. One asked James how he came to be so tall.
"I ate my vegetables when I was a kid," said James, who is 6-8, 250 pounds.
James, a famously health-conscious eater, now must try to convince kids to eat doughnuts and ice cream. "It's very exciting for me," James said. "I have two young boys that love ice cream and doughnuts."
The success James enjoyed on the court last season has gone a long way toward repairing his marketability, which was damaged in the summer of 2010 after the hyped, televised announcement of his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami as a free agent. Overnight he went from beloved to vilified. Some of that baggage lingers.
James' Q scores, considered one of the most widely used measures of the consumer appeal of a brand or celebrity, have still not returned to the levels they were before "The Decision." James' positive Q score today is 17 -- smack in the middle of the pack of sports personalities. That's down from his peak of 24 in early 2010 but up from 14 after James' popularity tanked in August 2010. Athletes with the highest Q scores currently are Michael Jordan and NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
"Maybe winning another championship and some positive PR will help," said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores. "Winning isn't everything when it comes to your public image. A lot has to do with the way you connect to the public. It can take a long time to get back to the lofty heights when you fall."
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