A second consecutive NBA championship and Finals MVP should bring a tangible payoff to LeBron James.
A prominent sports marketing expert expects the Heat star to cash in an additional $5-7 million in annual commercial endorsements.
Considering James already leads all NBA players with $42 million a year in off-court earnings, such an increase doesn’t carry the life-altering impact that it would for an up-and-coming player.
While forecasting new endorsement opportunities for James, Bob Dorfman, author of “The Sports Marketers’ Scouting Report,” suggested the benefits of the second title may be more intangible as America gradually warms to him.
“I think this one helped a lot. The first one, maybe people thought it was a bit of a fluke. This one maybe legitimizes him a little more, certainly builds his legacy,” Dorfman said. “You can’t deny he’s the greatest player in the game right now.”
Despite nationwide animosity directed at James following his awkward exit from Cleveland and the criticism of his play in losing the 2011 Finals to Dallas, he has remained a powerful commercial presence.
The subsequent back-to-back championships, regular-season and Finals MVP trophies and 2012 Olympic gold medal did much to ensure that.
James was recently ranked No. 4 in endorsements among all athletes by Forbes Magazine, tied with universally admired David Beckham. They trail Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, each with $65 million a year in endorsements, and Phil Mickelson with $44 million.
Kobe Bryant ranks second in endorsements among NBA players with $34 million. The Heat’s Dwyane Wade is fifth at $11.5 million.
But while James is king among those currently on the court, Michael Jordan remains the rock-star of endorsers at $80 million a year a full decade after retiring.
Even if he closes the gap in championship rings, Dorfman doubts James will catch Jordan in marketability.
“Jordan has kind of got this mythological magic about him,” Dorfman said.
“It’s a matter of the times and how different they are now. I think if Jordan had been under the social media microscope that athletes are under now, I don’t know that he would be as loved right now. He had some issues that nobody really knew about because nobody had cameras on their phones and nobody was tweeting stories about him.”
The scrutiny is more intense and judgment seemingly harsher now. James put himself in the crosshairs with ‘The Decision,’ followed by his “Not one, not two, not three …” promise of multiple championships.
That led to a precipitous fall in popularity, evident in James’ Q Score plummeting from 34 to 16 after announcing he was taking his talents to South Beach.
“It was crazy. It was the biggest decline I’ve ever seen that was not criminally related,” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company.
Q Scores are a tool advertisers use in selecting product spokespersons as a measure of their appeal to consumers. To James’ benefit, while his popularity was in a free fall, his sponsors stuck with him.
Nike, for instance, had every reason to because James moves shoes. His signature sneakers generated a reported $300 million in sales in 2012, six times as much as runner-up Bryant’s.
While he remains a polarizing figure, sports fans — at least those outside of Cleveland — are warming to him.
As of April, James’ Q Score had increased to 25 among sports fans, Schafer said. His negative rating, which had soared after the move to Miami, had settled back at 21. That is about what it was earlier in 2010.
“I think he certainly has done a good job in repairing his image with sports fans. We’ll have to wait to see how the general population reacts to the (Finals) victory,” Schafer said, referring to a broader poll to be conducted in July.
Meanwhile, James ranks 2,657 in likability among 3,000 celebrities on the Celebrity DBI, another marketing index tracked by The Marketing Arm.
That is on par with Mickey Rourke, Paula Abdul, John Daly and Gene Simmons, of KISS, and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, in the eyes of all consumers.
Nonetheless, James is ranked as the 145th most influential celebrity, comparable to Will Ferrell and Matt Damon. His rating as an endorser is 653, similar to Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro.
“What’s interesting is that, while consumers nationally don’t find LeBron to be particularly likable, they do recognize that he wields considerable influence,” said Chris Anderson, director of communications for The Marketing Arm.
James’ image rehabilitation with sports fans is likely due in large part to his accomplishments over the past two seasons, but may also reflect how he comes across in commercials, such as those for Samsfung’s Galaxy Note II that shows a lighter side of LeBron.
Schafer said there are indications, though, that some of James’ comments following the latest championship stirred fresh animosity outside of South Florida, interpreted as gloating or arrogant. So the upcoming Q Score poll is difficult to forecast.
But his popularity is strong internationally with a new deal as “brand ambassador” for Dunkin Donuts and Baskin-Robbins in China, Taiwan, India and South Korea. He will also grace the cover of 2K Sports’ NBA 2K14 video game.
Dorfman said that the increase in James’ endorsement earnings may come more from expanding interests with his current sponsors than adding new ones, and may involve more in the way of equity deals than pitching products.
“But there’s certainly categories that he still has open,” Dorfman said.
“We haven’t seen him doing anything of automotive, financial institutions, grooming products and men’s fashion, a few areas where he doesn’t have any deals yet that maybe he can pick up some of this stuff.”
With Forbes ranking James as the fourth-highest paid athlete in the world, with all sources of income totaling $59.8 million, it is easy to understand why he said, “I ain’t got no worries,” with another Finals MVP trophy in hand.
Despite basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson’s opinion that LeBron should have even more endorsements, and whether much of the nation likes him or not, it’s never been better — or more profitable — to be King James.