Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Come On Up For the Resurrection of Kobe Bryant

Did time really stand still for Kobe Bryant on July 4, 2003? For many NBA fans, particularly those who cheered for Kobe, the end of the innocence began a little more then three years ago when Bryant, then 24, was arrested and charged with Felony Sexual Assault in Eagle Creek, Colorado. (The alleged assault took place on June 30, Bryant was charged five days later).

37 months later, wonders never cease – Kobe Bryant today is on the cover of NBA '07 for PlayStation(R)2 and PlayStation Portable (R). As strange as it may seem, Kobe Bryant then positioned as the next great NBA player, following in the legacy of Bird, Jordan and Magic, only to experience his own personal version of a Greek Tragedy may indeed be the marketing force most believed he would be, until that fateful day when Kobe was accused of raping a woman.

Kobe was drafted when he was 17, the son of the former N.B.A. journeyman Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant. Kobe’s father played professional basketball overseas and for eight seasons in the N.B.A. before retiring in 1983.

Kobe became the youngest player in the history of the NBA in 1996. Overnight he became an NBA star and worked to develop a perfect imagine. At 24, Kobe was thought to have it all, the perfect wife (his high school sweetheart Vanessa Laine), and a young father who would stand as an example to the African-American community. At 23, Kobe had three NBA titles to his name, more then any other 23-year old in NBA history.

It took Kobe Bryant seven NBA seasons to rise, and one terrible night to fall. Sonny Vaccaro, Adidas director of sports development in 2003, brought Kobe and adidas together signing Kobe to his first multi-million dollar endorsement contract.

''This is what we do at this level; we ordain them early,'' Vaccaro told the New York Times three summers ago. ''We identify them sometimes in seventh or eighth grade, so the myth starts building.''

A month before the ‘events’ of June 30, 2003, Bryant signed a $45 million shoe contract with Nike. At the time Kobe Bryant was also the face of McDonald’s and Sprite’s corporate NBA partnerships.

Robert Tuchman, the president of TSE Sports and Entertainment, a marketing firm based in Manhattan, told The New York Times’ Mike Wise in July 2003 he believed that even if Bryant is cleared of the charge, his reputation may suffer.

''Obviously, you'd be hard-pressed to find any company to stick with him if he's convicted,'' Tuchman said. ''You'd have so many rights groups coming out against the companies. If this thing does blow over, I don't think there will be a huge stigma against him. Still, he was the model endorser: young, energetic, great smile. Somebody might be sitting in a brand office at Kraft a couple years from now, thinking, 'Wait, didn't something happen to him?' ''

Three years ago everyone with an opinion tried to paint the picture as to why they believed Kobe Bryant’s life of respect turned to ridicule overnight.

''Adolescence is really about identity representation,'' said Dr. Ronald Kamm, president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry, based in Oakhurst, N.J. ''It really gets affected by this level of fame, the way a Jennifer Capriati or LeBron James might get affected.''''We think because athletes are so physically gifted, we tend to think they are gifted in other ways, morally and intellectually,'' Kamm said. ''I'm not saying some don't live up to that standard, but we should emulate their work ethic and the fact that they practice so hard and perform under the most intense pressure. In that way, they are realistic role models. But to think that they are moral or character role models, they may be and they may not.''

''There's a lot of talk now about Kobe Bryant and how that is going to affect the brands with which he's associated. Once someone is strongly associated with a product or service,'' Kathy Feakins, senior partner at Lippincott Mercer, a design and brand strategy agency in New York told The New York Times, “what happens to their image can have an impact on the product.''

Nutella, the maker of a chocolate-hazelnut topping ended their agreement with Kobe soon after he was accused of sexual assault. His other sponsors stayed out of sight at least as far as their association with Kobe Bryant was concerned.

Nike took the first big step last summer, featuring Kobe in a two page Sports Illustrated advertising spread. The return of Bryant features him staring at a long list of insults that have been leveled at him over the past two years: "Selfish … Uncoachable … Prima Donna … Not a leader … Not a Team Player."

"I think some people were surprised at the speed of Kobe's comeback. But, the way the way the situation was resolved, I don't think anyone doubted that he'd resume being a marketable personality," Doug Drotman, head of the New York-based sports public relations firm Drotman Communications told the Associated Press.

"What you will see is that Kobe will be marketed a little differently. That's inevitable. Because a change in public perception is something that can't be denied or avoided."

Kobe did the rest, capturing everyone’s attention collecting 81 points in a remarkable one man performance against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006. The tour de force marked the second highest single scoring total in one game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain biblical 100 point game, more myth and legend at times then reality. Kobe’s 81 point masterpiece came in the age of instant communications – overnight Kobe Bryant was back.

"We were all on our e-mails during the second half of the game to make sure it would go up on the Internet quickly," said Brenda Spoonemore, the senior vice president for interactive services at NBA Entertainment. At a moment like Kobe 81, she said: "Our fans have the expectation to see it, own it, watch it. It feels like one of those turning points in the sports industry."

Wilt’s 100 point game wasn’t televised, happened in 1962 and much to those who believe they were at the game, would have had to have been in Hershey, Pennsylvania. An urban myth has Wilt’s 100 point game played at Madison Square Garden.

The NBA did what any major league does in 2006 – they made Kobe’s 81 point game available on the internet selling for $3.95 a download on the Google Video Store hours after the game ended. You have to admire the NBA and Kobe’s timing – the NBA announced their internet streaming agreement with Google the week of Kobe’s 81 point game.

Just as many had offered their opinions two and half years earlier when Kobe ran into his issues in Eagle Creek, Colorado, everyone with a pulpit and an association to the sports industry had their opinion as to how Kobe’s 81 point game would impact his marketability.

Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, the Q Scores Company, told the New York Times Richard Sandomir he for one didn’t believe Kobe’s marketability would improve after his 81 point game against the Raptors.

"He's not doing anything outside the game that would mitigate the negative reaction significantly," he said. "You don't see remorse. Those who do show it bounce back quickly."

"From a brand perspective, Kobe's no more compelling than before the game," Jeff Chown, president of Davie-Brown Talent offered in The New York Times report. "When a celebrity has a transgression, three things help: time, winning and rehabilitating his image. Time is helping; he's winning, but it's individually, and he's done nothing to rehabilitate his image."

Clearly whatever some so-called experts believed Nike was determined to ensure their $45 million investment in Kobe Bryant paid for itself. Nike followed up their Sports Illustrated July 2005 two-page advertising spread, unveiling the Zoom Kobe I, on Christmas Day, when the Lakers met the Miami Heat on ABC in a nationally televised game.

Kobe’s Nike campaign was created by Wieden and Kennedy, the world-renowned ad agency who built their reputation on their successful Nike ad campaigns.

Was it really possible the world had forgotten what Kobe was accused of doing on June 30, 2003? Those charges where dropped in September 2004 when Kobe’s accuser refused to testify. Kobe and his alleged victim settled their civil suit in May 2005. Kobe Bryant has never been proven to be guilty of anything, expect he remains guilty as charged in the court of public opinion.

Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon told CNNmoney.com 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.

"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."

Days after his 81 point game against the Raptors ESPN.com reported that two versions of Bryant's jersey where among the top-25 best sellers as the NBA approached the middle of the league’s 2005-06 season, according to Neil Schwartz of SportScanINFO, a market retail tracking firm. Schwartz reminded ESPN that Bryant's jersey didn't make the top 50 last year, although sales of Bryant jerseys at the NBA Store in Manhattan and on NBA.com were strong enough for the league to announce that the 27-year-old had the fifth-most-popular jersey sold.

"His star is definitely rising," Schwartz said.

In an ESPN.com SportsNation Poll taken days after the game against the Raptors, more than 40 percent of voters said that Bryant was the best player in the league, and, at last count, Bryant was second only to Yao Ming in votes received for the All-Star Game in Houston on Feb. 19.

The next major step in the resurrection of Kobe played out near the end of the Lakers regular season. Kobe spoke with The Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Bresnahan. The Lakers didn’t make the playoffs during the 2004-05 season finishing with a 34-48 record. Led by Bryant, the Lakers made the playoffs this year, losing to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.

"Since training camp … I've been pushing them all the time to play that way just by being hard on them, being tough on them…. When you go into a hostile environment when the playoffs come up, you have to be able to respond to optimum pressure situations. In practice, I'll talk a lot. I'll put the pressure on them and try to get them to look within themselves and get confidence in themselves to come through in those situations.

"And then when they come through, you've got to pat them on the back. You've got to let them know, and I think they understand how I am. They understand that that's my leadership style. There's a million different ways to be a leader, many different forms of it. This is the way I go about it."

Kobe offered the Los Angeles Times this on Nike’s "love me or hate me" commercial blitz during the All-Star break. The commercial was shot last summer at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo with a script that was "basically how I felt at the time," Bryant said.

"I think to a certain degree, it's something that everybody goes through. I just said it," he said. "A lot of people, whether it's a writer or a coach or whatever, certain people love your work, certain people don't like your work. In our position, people have a greater platform to criticize us."

Bresnahan didn’t back away from the question everyone wanted to ask Kobe – what about his image.

"I think that the things that I've been through in my life, I pretty much have grown up in front of the city of L.A. — positive times, bad times, whatever — and I think where my image really comes into play is being able to impact people in a good way," Bryant said. "Not everybody's perfect. I'm certainly not perfect. So I just try to help young kids growing up, challenge them to be better, not to settle for people's expectations of them or people casting a negative image upon them. It's tough to battle through that, fight through that and be better the next day."

The United States are off to a good start at the World Basketball Championships in Japan. Many expected Kobe to be a part of the team that is expected to form the nucleus of the 2008 United States Olympic team. A sixth place finish at the 2002 World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis, a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics, Bryant desperately wanted (or at least he claims) to be a part of the team wearing the red/white/and blue in Japan. Alas, arthroscopic surgery on his right knee put him on the sidelines.

Kobe has been busy this summer forming the VIVO Foundation. The foundation provided a unique opportunity to eight minority college students this summer by funding travel scholarships to Italy. Kobe traveled with the group to Rome, Florence, and Venice.

``It just shows them that there's more out there than just your city or neighboring states,” Bryant told The Boston Globe. ``The possibilities are limitless. It's a global society that we live in and I just want to open them up to that. You get inspired. You come back with a new outlook on things. You just know that things are possible."

The group arrived back in Los Angeles Wednesday. The Los Angeles Times reported Kobe’s Sony endorsement agreement Friday, Sony officials made it official Monday – Kobe would be on the cover the company’s most important NBA marketing program, Sony believed in Kobe Bryant.

"Kobe Bryant has distinguished himself as one of the truly elite players in the NBA and we are thrilled to have him represent NBA '07 as our newest cover athlete," said Sharon Shapiro, senior director, promotions and sports product marketing, Sony Computer Entertainment America. "With his explosive game and storied rise to the top of the NBA's ranks, Bryant is a great ambassador for NBA '07 and its unique gameplay-driven story mode 'The Life: Vol. 2.'"

Amazing as it may seem, the Rising of Kobe Bryant, was followed by the complete fall of Kobe Bryant only to be topped by the complete resurrection of Kobe Bryant. If nothing else, Kobe Bryant is proof positive life is filled with infinite possibilities and if we really work hard we may be forgiven for our sins.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, ESPN.com and CNNmoney.com