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The battle to be the next Jordan

LeBron James came into the NBA widely heralded as the next big star on the court and Madison Ave. But Dwyane Wade has stolen the spotlight.

A weekly column by Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- When LeBron James arrived in the National Basketball League in 2003, he was hailed as the next Michael Jordan - both on and off the court.

But while he's lived up to much of the hype in his on court performance, he hasn't built much on the endorsements he brought into the league with him. In fact, instead of becoming the next Jordan, he still has to become the next Dwyane Wade.

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LeBron was being heralded as the NBA's next superstar when he was still in high school.
LeBron was being heralded as the NBA's next superstar when he was still in high school.
Dwyane Wade found himself on the Wheaties box after he won the NBA Finals MVP a year ago.
Dwyane Wade found himself on the Wheaties box after he won the NBA Finals MVP a year ago.

Nike (Charts, Fortune 500) and Coca Cola's (Charts, Fortune 500) Sprite are still the only spots where you're likely to see King James, unless you look quickly in one of the Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) commercials heralding its Vista operating system.

Still, those deals are enough to give him an estimated $24 million a year in endorsement checks. That's more than any U.S. athlete not swinging a golf club. Both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson make more money from endorsements than LeBron.

Meanwhile, the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade came into the NBA the same year as LeBron without nearly as much hype.

But Wade, the MVP of last year's NBA Finals, is fast becoming the league's Most Popular Endorser as well.

Ford Motor's (Charts, Fortune 500) Lincoln brand and T-Mobile have made use of him, and he's become the face of Converse athletic shoes, the brand that was purchased by Nike. He's also got PepsiCo's (Charts, Fortune 500) Gatorade in his stable of advertisers.

Ratings from Marketing Evaluations, which compile the Q scores used by sponsors to judge a celebrity's endorsement value, show that Wade is recognized by 27 percent of Americans, including non-sports fans, up from 17 percent two year ago. And while that still badly trails James' 49 percent recognition, those who know who Wade is are more likely to have a positive impression of him than those who recognize James.

Henry Schafer of Marketing Evaluations said Wade's current spots have helped him break through with the public almost as much as his on-court performance.

"Let's put it this way, whoever is representing him has made a smart decision, pairing him with (former NBA star Charles) Barkley, doing a non-sports product," said Schafer, about the ads for cell phone service T-Mobile. "They're marketing Wade better for the general population."

Schafer and other experts in the field said with the two stars leading their teams into the playoffs again, James probably needs to get his Cleveland Cavaliers to at least the Eastern Conference Finals, if not the NBA Finals, to break through with more advertisers.

"More than anyone, [James] needs to get a ring or at least get to the finals to really reach the next level," said Bob Dorfman, author of the Sports Marketers Scouting Report, which tracks athlete endorsements.

Of course, there are exceptions to the "You must win a championship" rule. Peyton Manning wasn't hurting in the endorsement department before he and his Indianapolis Colts won this year's Super Bowl.

But a championship and the exposure that comes with winning clearly would help James break through to the next level as an endorser.

"Jordan was highly marketable before the Bulls won their first title, but once they won, he became an icon," said Scott Sanford, senior client director for Davie Brown Talent. "That success will put you in front of consumers more often."

Sanford's firm's own survey finds the recognition gap between James and Wade far more narrow than the other reading - 44.3 percent to 38.1 percent. And it also finds Wade slightly more appealing than James among those who recognize the two stars.

Reaching the Finals maybe even more important now, since relatively few NBA playoff games end up on ABC, where they're more likely to be seen by the casual sports fan, until the Finals.

At least in Jordan's day, NBC carried far more of the early-round action.

Wade is playing hurt in this year's playoffs, putting off surgery during the season to try to help his team. While he's led the Heat in scoring the first two games of the first round, it was with a modest 21 points in each. Partly as a result, the Heat go into Friday's game in a 2-0 hole.

But most experts say that even if the Heat go out in the first round this year, it won't damage Wade's endorsement potential.

"If the Heat start falling, if they start missing the playoffs in future years, sure you'll start to see him slip," said Sanford. "Right now he can ride the wave for a little bit longer."

James and the Cavaliers, on the other hand, are up 2 games to none going into the weekend. Still, Dorfman said that since James started his career so young - right out of high school - he doesn't need to necessarily win this year to have that breakthrough.

"Both guys are young and have long careers ahead of them," said Dorfman, who pointed to a recent surveys of experts by trade publication Sports Business Daily asking who would be the most marketable athlete in five years. James finished No. 2, behind only Tiger Woods, while Wade finished No 3. Manning fell to fifth from his current ranking as the second most marketable today.

With this in mind, it's not surprising that McDonald's (Charts, Fortune 500) reportedly is considering using James and Wade in a remake of its famous Michael Jordan-Larry Bird "Nothing But Net" commercial that ran during the 1993 Super Bowl. The chain did not respond to calls asking for comment on the report.

Dorfman said that pairing of the two in such a spot would be a boost for both players.

"I'm sure it will be very successful," he said. "Yeah, there might be people who remember and prefer the old spot. But they're aiming this at 19-year olds who weren't even born then. And both of these guys have got to be better actors than Larry Bird." Top of page