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Tuesday, December 2, 2003
LeBron, Carmelo top NBA jersey sales

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony faced each other on the court Tuesday night, and the battle between the hyped rookies also is occurring in stores.

TOP NBA PLAYER JERSEYS
1. LeBron James, Cavaliers
2. Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets
3. Tracy McGrady, Magic
4. Allen Iverson, 76ers
5. Kobe Bryant, Lakers
6. Jason Kidd, Nets
7. Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers
8. Paul Pierce, Celtics
9. Allan Houston, Knicks
10. Tim Duncan, Spurs
11. Vince Carter, Raptors
12. Latrell Sprewell, Wolves
13. Kevin Garnett, Wolves
14. Rasheed Wallace, Blazers
15. Gary Payton, Lakers

The jerseys of James and Anthony are ranked first and second, respectively, on the individual player sales rankings list, which will be released by the NBA later this week. The list was based on sales over the last two months at the NBA store in Manhattan and on NBA.com.

It is believed to be the first time that two rookies have filled the top two spots in jersey sales.

Although the NBA doesn't release total number of jerseys sold, there have been almost 600,000 James jerseys sold since they went on sale minutes after he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 26, according to Neil Schwartz, director of marketing and business development with SportScanINFO, a market research firm that monitors the sporting goods industry.

"LeBron jerseys are still selling very well," Schwartz said. "But, especially over the past couple weeks, Anthony jerseys have been doing extremely well."

In fact, two weeks ago, SportScanINFO tracked that Anthony jerseys outsold James jerseys.

"High-profile rookies usually have a significant impact in the retail business," said Sal LaRocca, the NBA's senior vice president for global merchandising. "We'll have to wait and see if sales for LeBron and Carmelo can be sustained throughout the season."

Both players have aided sales of their jerseys by playing well thus far. James is averaging 17.5 points and 6.4 assists per game for the Cavaliers, while Anthony is averaging 17.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for the Denver Nuggets. On Tuesday, Anthony scored 26 points to James' 19 as the Nuggets beat the Cavs 115-103.

Some believe the fact that "James" and "Anthony" are two very popular first names could be helping sales. Others reason that, besides the players living up to the hype, both the Cavaliers and the Nuggets are donning new designs and colors this season.

The Cavaliers are wearing a variation of their old wine and gold. The Nuggets have switched to a blue and yellow reminiscent of the apparel worn by the UCLA Bruins.

The latter should come as no surprise. Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe played from the Bruins in the late 1970s.

"This is our best start in terms of merchandise sales in at least 10 years," said Tom Philand, the Nuggets' senior vice president of marketing and corporate sponsorship. "It's not even close to what we were selling in the past."

With the Nuggets off to a 10-6 start, Philand said the "palpable sense of excitement" has encouraged locals to go out and get their team gear.

Do the new apparel choices coinciding with the league's hottest rookies suggest some sort of league merchandising conspiracy? LaRocca debunks that notion.

"For a team to change their look, it's an 18- to 22-month process," LaRocca said. "That means that the Cavaliers and the Nuggets applied to make the change prior to January 2002. So it can only be purely coincidental that this happened."

TOP NBA TEAMS IN MERCHANDISE SALES
1. Lakers
2. 76ers
3. Cavaliers
4. Knicks
5. Nuggets
6. Celtics
7. Nets
8. Bulls
9. Magic
10. Spurs

Thanks to the sales of James and Anthony jerseys, the Cavaliers and the Nuggets -- two teams that were in the bottom third of team merchandise sales last year -- have vaulted to third and fifth place, respectively.

LaRocca doesn't believe that James' NBA sales will sharply decline when Nike releases its extensive line of James apparel. Warm-ups, shirts, hats and shorts featuring Nike's James' logo will roll out over the next couple of weeks, most of the gear in red, black and white to match with the first color of his signature Air Zoom Generation shoe that launches Dec. 20.

"If history is any indication, companies like Nike, adidas and Reebok have spent a great deal of money marketing our basketball players and that has helped the NBA significantly," LaRocca said. "Michael Jordan was the league's best-selling player and he had his own line of clothes. Allen Iverson has his own line and he has historically sold plenty of NBA merchandise."

Tracy McGrady, Iverson and Kobe Bryant round out the top five in player jersey sales. Despite the negative publicity relating to Bryant's sexual assault case, LaRocca says that there is no evidence of any slowdown in sales of Bryant's merchandise.

Schwartz says that his data shows that Bryant sales have started to slow down and he expects sales to drop even more as the court proceedings continue. Bryant was the third best-selling jersey last season but has been pushed down because of the overwhelming success of James and Anthony.

Sales of NBA licensed products were up 60 percent last year to $3 billion and LaRocca expects it will climb an additional 20 percent for the 2003-04 season.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.