Kobe won't score with advertisers
NBA star to appear in first TV ad since rape charge, but his 81-point game won't get him many other deals.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Something happened on the basketball court recently that many thought they would never see again: Kobe Bryant filming a television commercial.
The spot for Nike (Research) will mark the first TV commercial he's done since he was charged with felony sexual assault in July 2003, at a time when he was one of the top commercial pitchmen in sports.
Bryant got some positive publicity for a change this week by scoring 81 points in game on January 22, the second-best individual performance in NBA history, trailing only the legendary 100-point game of Wilt Chamberlain.
So with Bryant finally dominating the sports pages for the right reasons this week, it's worth asking if the Nike spot will be the first of many new ad deals with major companies.
The answer, according to many experts in the field, is no.
That's not to say there isn't some company who might look to grab some attention by using Bryant in the future. Heck, if Paris Hilton and Terrell Owens can do commercials, almost anyone can.
Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon said Bryant has rehabilitated his image enough for an athletic shoe and equipment company like Nike to profit from using him, but that most general product advertisers would be nervous about putting him in an ad.
"(The criminal charge) is an important issue for a lot of people who will not let it go," said Swangard.
The charges against Bryant were dropped in September 2004, after his accuser said she no longer wanted to pursue the case against him. She later reached an out of court civil settlement with Bryant.
Bryant's deals with McDonald's and Coke-owned Sprite expired without being renewed after the criminal charges. Neither company tried to get out of the contract following the charges. They simply stopped using the commercials he had already filmed.
Nike had signed him to a reported five-year, $40 million endorsement contract just before the criminal charges, and insists that its relationship with the star has never changed.
But it wasn't until summer of 2005 that he appeared in a Nike print ad. And on Feb. 11 Nike will launch the Zoom Kobe I, its first Kobe-branded shoe, for $130. The commercial will start airing in February as well.
Some experts say the fact that Nike is using Bryant in a commercial could help open the door for some advertisers to consider using him.
"If there is a firestorm of press, Nike will absorb that," said Tom George, senior marketing officer of Octagon, a leading sports marketing and representation firm. "It will make it easier for someone else to do something afterwards, because they won't be first."
But George and other experts agree that most advertisers will still be scared away by the possible backlash.
"Corporate America is risk adverse," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm, which negotiates deals between athletes and sponsors. "When there are other options, they'll say, 'Why would we go with someone who has baggage attached?'"
Marketing Evaluations Inc., a research firm that conducts surveys of public perceptions of celebrities used by advertisers, found that Bryant still has the highest negative rating of any athlete, with 80 percent of the general population knowing who he is and 53 percent of those having a negative view of him. That's only down a couple percentage points from the survey conducted in September 2004.
The next highest negative rating for an athlete is 38 percent for baseball star Barry Bonds, who has been accused of using steroids to set home run records, and who has few advertisers beating down his door despite his on-field success.
Bryant is among the sports' most popular players. His jersey was the No. 5 best seller at the NBA store and Web site last season and shot to the top spot this past week after the record game. He was also the No. 2 vote getter in this year's All Star game balloting in voting through Jan. 18.
Still, he also has more than his fair share of detractors among sports fans : 48 percent viewed him negatively, compared to only 14 percent who had a positive image of him, according to Marketing Evaluations.
Nike acknowledged the criticism of their expensive star in its print ad last summer, in which it repeated one attack on him after another, such as "Selfish," "Overrated" and "Not a Leader," with each charge being followed by the grueling training regiment Bryant was following to answer his critics.
"We felt like it was the appropriate approach for that campaign," said Nike Basketball spokesman Rodney Knox.
That ad didn't mention his criminal troubles though. And they're still on the minds of many consumers...and advertisers.
For a look at the young athletes who advertisers do want pitching their products, click here.
For more on the business of sports, click here.