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Kobe Bryant’s Game Was Built to Last, What About His Brand?

November 30, 2015, 7:41 PM UTC
Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty

Kobe Bryant announced on Sunday that he would retire at the end of the current NBA season. It is a season in which by almost any metric, Bryant is not playing well—at least so far. And in the past two seasons, his Los Angeles Lakers have finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs.

As a result, pundits on ESPN and fans on Twitter have lamented that Bryant has to “go out like this.” But in his storied career, Bryant has racked up quite a list of achievements:

  • He is in his 20th season with the Lakers, an NBA record for most seasons with the same team, and he leads the franchise in every major statistical category.
  • He earned five championship rings and was twice named Finals MVP.
  • He made the All-Star game 17 times.
  • He was league MVP in 2008.
  • He’s a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner.
  • He’s the third-leading scorer in NBA history.

Some theorize that this can’t really be the end for Bryant, that the star is setting up for a brief break and then a miraculous comeback a la Michael Jordan. (Jordan and Bryant overlapped in the league for four seasons.) But assuming that he will truly stop playing professional basketball come April, how likely is it that his name brand lasts beyond retirement and remains marketable?

Michael Jordan left the game over a decade ago but Jordan Brand, the shoe line that bears his name and his Jumpman likeness, still dominates basketball footwear sales. LeBron James has dozens of endorsement deals and a stake in a slew of sports teams and businesses; he could retire tomorrow or in eight years and either way, his brand will almost certainly last. Can Kobe expect the same?

Bryant has certainly made a lot of money playing basketball. At the end of this season, he will have received more than $328 million in salary over his career, according to figures from Basketball Reference. He has been the highest-paid NBA player for five straight seasons (including in 2013-2014, when he only played six games). His salary, plus off-court earnings, landed him in the top 10 of the Sports Illustrated Fortunate 50 ranking every year since 2006 (and in the top five the past three years).

Off the court, he has made personal investments in energy drink BodyArmor and sports site The Players’ Tribune, and he still brings in about $20 million a year in endorsements, according to Fortune and Sports Illustrated estimates. But that is less than he once brought in at his popularity peak. Over the years, he has endorsed McDonald’s, the video game Call of Duty, Nutella, Upper Deck, Sprite, SmartCar, and more. He still has active deals with Lenovo and Turkish Airlines, among others, plus one big deal with Nike. However, the logo on Nike’s Kobe sneakers and apparel—a three-point “sheath”—never became as widely recognizable as the Jumpman, or LeBron’s crown logo, or Kevin Durant’s initials logo, or even Dwyane Wade’s logo when he was signed with Converse. Why is that?

Bryant’s checkered personal history may be partly to blame. In 2003, his image took a big hit after he was accused of sexual assault. He reached a private settlement and the criminal charges were dropped, but he was also dropped by some of his brands, like McDonald’s and Ferrero SpA. His marketability never fully recovered.

Even if that scandal had never happened, “Kobe just never had that same moxie that MJ or LeBron have,” according to Doug Shabelman, sports marketing expert with Burns Entertainment. “Whether it was being in L.A., whether it was because people were coming off the Michael Jordan brand, whatever it was, he never resonated to the same extent as those guys. He ended up being a terrific ambassador and endorser, but never a full-fledged brand.”

Indeed, Bryant has always been big overseas as an NBA ambassador, especially in China. International fame can help extend the lifetime of endorsement relationships, Shabelman says. A deal like Turkish Airlines — Bryant appeared in ads with global soccer star Lionel Messi — keeps an American athlete in the minds of fans outside the States. There’s no question Bryant will continue to earn money for years to come. But can you expect to see him in ads even after he’s left the sport, the way you still see Jordan, or Charles Barkley, or Brett Favre? Perhaps not until after a break.

“Usually you give them a couple years, and if it’s not a Jordan or a Barkley, you take a couple years off before you start doing spots again,” says Shabelman, who has advised on endorsement contracts for athletes in the past. “Then a company says, ‘Well, who were the basketball stars that were huge in the late ’90s?’ And they put him and Tim Duncan in an ad together. But it might be more of a senior market, and it might take a couple of years to get there.”

As an example, Shabelman cites the Nissan “Heisman House” spots currently airing, which include former football stars like Hershel Walker and Doug Flutie. But those group ads bring the stars less money than the seven-figure deals they were used to when they were still playing.

Once he leaves the NBA, will Kobe still be the centerpiece of any big ad campaigns? Shabelman is betting no. But the “Black Mamba” will certainly go down as one of the greatest talents on the court.