LeBron James may be an NBA All-Star player with the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but he has caused a problem among such companies as McDonald's, Nike, Coca-Cola and State Farm.
From the time of The Decision on ESPN this past summer to his "it wasn't a tweet, it was a re-tweet" this week when he appeared to karma-lize his former Cleveland Cavaliers team after their 55-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, James has created a dilemma for his marketing partners.
He is a star in a high-profile city, prolific on the court and constantly on TV because NBA media partners ESPN, ABC and TNT benefit from his presence. Concurrently, consumers do not like his new public persona, and polls rank him as one of the most disliked athletes in America. Whether or not that's based on facts or public perception, that's bad for business when you are trying to sell insurance or soda.
James has not ventured into Tiger Woods territory, whose personal life forced marketing partners to end their lucrative relationships with him. In fact, James is expected to remain atop the list of NBA players with about $30 million from endorsements in 2011, much as he did in 2010 via deals from such companies as McDonald's, Nike, Coca-Cola brands Sprite and Glaceau's Vitaminwater, State Farm and Upper Deck.
But since joining the Heat he has not signed any new national deals and has not appeared in national TV spots. Nike did unveil LeBron shoes during Christmas, but that came as a package effort alongside new kicks from Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. And while that might change when NBA marketing partners activate behind the All-Star Game in February and the playoffs later on, D-Wade has already starred in new spots for T-Mobile and Nike's Jordan Brand, making James' national marketing absence all the more apparent.
What marketers have elected to do is become official partners of the Miami Heat, a tact taken by T-Mobile and American Express, among others. That enables them to reap the benefits of the national spotlight being put on the Three Amigos while also enabling them to keep a distance from the shadow being cast by James. Also among the beneficiaries are such Heat marketing partners as Corona, Toyota, AutoNation and Assist-Card, a travelers' insurance company that is in the second year of a five-year deal as presenting sponsor of the team, as well as American Airlines, which has naming rights to the Heat's home arena.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat have sold a lot of tickets and moved a lot of merchandise thanks to James, but there are few instances in which James is not pictured alongside Wade and Bosh.
Marketers are hoping that James can return to the top of the "Most Liked" consumer polls, where he had resided since joining the NBA in 2003, and again sell their products to a national audience. For now, he comes across as the star player in high school that other kids love to hate but must tolerate.
He gets the best seat in the cafeteria, hangs out with the team while classmates have to do homework and attracts the best-looking girls (even yours!), all the while flaunting his lifestyle and athletic prowess to the rest of the student body. So keep this in mind: How long did it take you to start liking the high school sports star who rubbed his success in your face?
You can contact Barry Janoff at editor@NYSportsJournalism.com or http://www.NYSportsJournalism.com