Monday, August 11, 2008

The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics – All Hail Kobe

Sunday’s featured Olympic event was billed as the most watched basketball game in history. More than 1 billion people across the globe reportedly watched part of the United States Men’s basketball team opening game against the host Chinese. In what didn’t come as a surprise to anyone the “Dream Team” throttled the Chinese 101-70. The games real stars, Yao Ming, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. That said – by all appearances Kobe will be one of the real stars to emerge from the Beijing Games. Kobe who four short years ago had the world in the palm of his hand, only to lose it all, regain much of what he had lost appears poised to reap a financial windfall from the Beijing Olympics.

Kobe Bryant the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player rakes in some $17 million through his deals with Nike, Sony and Coca-Cola's Vitamin Water, in addition to his seven-year, $136.4 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. Several weekend published media reports suggested Kobe so enamored by how well he’s been received at the Beijing Games will seriously consider signing a contract with a European based professional basketball team once his current NBA contract ends.

Kobe’s current Lakers contact has one more year remaining. Saturday, Bryant told The Boston Globe there are $50 million very good reasons he’ll seriously look at taking his basketball to Europe in a years time.

"I'd probably go," said Bryant, who will be a free agent next summer. "Like Milan or something like that, where I grew up or something like that."

What Bryant would "probably go" for is a deal paying about $50 million a season. ESPN.com reported last week that LeBron James would strongly consider playing overseas if offered a salary of "around $50 million a year." ESPN also reported that CSKA Moscow and Olympiakos have already contacted James, though nothing has been discussed monetarily.

"Because I grew up in Italy, it has more significance to me because I'm more familiar with it, I've been there, and I still have friends there," said Bryant, explaining why he'd consider Italy to The Boston Globe. "I'm thinking about buying a house out there. It would be nothing to me to be able to do that."

Josh Childress of the Atlanta Hawks signed a three-year, $20 million deal with Olympiakos of Greece. Several other good NBA players, including Carlos Delfino and Juan Carlos Navarro, left the NBA for multi-million dollar European offers.

“Childress, Delfino, and all these other offers start coming up and all of a sudden you start hearing the talk circulating from teams over there and what they’re willing to do,” Bryant told Yahoo.com. “As athletes, you have to listen to that. That’s the least you can do.”

Even so, Bryant told Yahoo.com that it would be “Almost impossible … very difficult …” to leave the Lakers, who are primed to make a run at multiple championships over the next several years.

“But,” he said cryptically, “it is what it is.”

Kobe if nothing else at least realizes the big picture. The world is very big – and the Beijing Games can serves as the perfect platform for an athlete of his stature.

“The whole field is covered with the greatest athletes in the world,” he said. “There’s no greater place on earth. I’ve never been part of something this big before.”

Suggesting Kobe is looking at the bigger picture means that Kobe understands he’s never going to regain what he lost after allegations he raped a woman in Eagle, Colorado. All one needs to realize is what Kobe’s experienced in the last four years to appreciate Kobe might be heading across the pond not for fame and fortune but for the respect he believes he’s lost and will never experience again.

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 five 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).

Two year ago it looked as if Kobe had managed to recoup what he had lost – that may not be the case as it turns out.

Two years ago Kobe appeared on the cover of NBA '07 for PlayStation(R)2 and PlayStation Portable.

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, experienced 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. That was two years ago, but after being selected as the NBA’s MVP in April – American companies are again avoiding Kobe.

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 five 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?' ''

Five 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 were concerned.

Nike took the first big step three summers ago, 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."

Just as it appeared the Rise and Fall of Kobe Bryant was about to be completed with the Rise of Kobe – took a bizarre turn in June 2007.

In an ever increasing world where everyone is protecting what’s theirs, a group of unknown people claim to have a video of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant where the Lakers star offers what is allegedly a profanity laced tirade slamming the Lakers. In the five second teaser available on their website thekobevideo.com (the url long ago died) an African American male wearing a red T Shirt and sunglasses offers Kobe uttering five words “man this fuck d up position.

The creators of the website first tried to sell the video for $100,000. After falling flat on their faces whoever was behind the alleged video released the video for free on the Internet. Kobe asked the Lakers to trade him before the start of the 2007-08 NBA season. It seemed as if Bryant who worked tiressly at repairing his image watched as his actions once again proved to be his downfall.

"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."

Last summer Kobe signed a multi-year agreement with Sony, one worth millions of dollars to 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.'"

It may not make sense for Kobe to seriously consider playing professional basketball in Europe but you don’t have to read between the lines to appreciate when told Lakers fans where upset with Kobe after remarks suggested an Olympic gold medal would mean more to him than an NBA title he’s more than a little upset with Lakers fans and their attitude.

“So what,” he sniffed. “So what.” If they can’t understand that, they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s that simple. You’re playing for your country. There’s nobody in L.A. that wants to win more than me. If they want to take that as disrespectful, that’s silly. Everybody knows in L.A. that I’m the most competitive person – ever. Nobody wants to win a championship for the Lakers more than I do. Nobody. But playing for your country is something entirely different.”

Kobe may not be appreciated in Los Angeles but as teammate Chris Bosh told the Globe and Mail – Kobe indeed is number one in the heart of many Chinese.

"I don't know what it was like with the Beatles, but from what I've seen on TV, it's very close," Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh, a member of the U.S. team, said of the receptions for Bryant. "People's reactions to Kobe alone are pretty crazy. I have to walk the other way. It's sheer excitement. I saw a guy, Kobe gave him an autograph, and he took off running and laughing and jumping. That must have been pretty special to him. He went to go tell his friends about it."

The number one selling NBA jersey in China – Bryant’s number 24 Lakers jersey.

After Sunday’s United States teams’ first game against the Chinese Olympic men’s basketball team Bryant made it clear – he’s having a great time in Beijing.

“I am fortunate enough to have played in four NBA finals and numerous big games but it was just different. You felt like there was so much more support because it's the USA and obviously how proud the fans are here of their country.

"You just understood that there was something that was bigger than the game, it wasn't just a finals game or a seventh game, it was bigger than that."

"It was a great feeling, he basically came up to us and said I'm here to support you, our country supports you, so go out there and kick some butt," said Bryant, who later said he had been echoing comments President Bush who was in attendance made after the game..

"To hear that, it puts things in perspective. You look in the crowd, you see other U.S.A athletes, you see them here supporting you and we go to their events and we support them. It's like a brotherhood."

If nothing else Kobe Bryant is getting the respect he believes he’s earned. Kobe realizes he may have been his own worst enemy but he also wants the respect he believes he’s earned off the court. Only issue with that – we live in a world where its ‘what have you done for me lately.”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Yahoo.com and Reuters

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