Who'll show them the money?
McDonald's High School All-Americans hoping to make the same leap as LeBron James shouldn't dream of making the same kind of endorsement money as the teenage phenom.
Those in the marketing business say that shoe-deal money, which normally makes up the largest chunk of a star basketball player's endorsement portfolio, won't be flowing as much for this year's draft class.
"I think there's a misconception that people can come out of high school and get the marketing," said agent Calvin Andrews, who represents Carmelo Anthony, who received a six-year shoe deal worth about $18 million. "But I think what they don't understand is, people need to know your name. So if you don't have the hype that a LeBron necessarily had coming out of high school -- and no one has or will -- going to college like Carmelo did and let that hype machine work for you is definitely a good option."
Anthony's profile skyrocketed after leading Syracuse to a national championship in his one and only season of college ball. As for James, he was a household name before he was drafted. His popularity was reflected in James' Nike contract, which is worth more per year ($13 million) than the $12.96 million that the Cleveland Cavaliers are paying him for his first three seasons.
Seven players -- including James, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Stephon Marbury -- currently have signature shoes on the market, and Anthony and Kobe Bryant could have their own shoes by next season.
But basketball shoe czar Sonny Vaccaro, a former executive at Nike and adidas who now works for Reebok, said he believes the number of signature shoes by basketball players figures to decrease.
"These kids can't carry the whole line of shoes," Vaccaro said. "They'll have to be the messenger."
If players are endorsing the shoe brands instead of their own shoes, their contracts will be worth less. Sources within the industry say that no player who goes from high school to the NBA this year -- including Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair and Josh Smith -- will make more than $5 million per year. None of them are expected to sign deals that match James' seven-year time period.
Smith, Livingston and Telfair are expected to be the most coveted players in the shoe endorsement game.
Telfair, the most hyped of the high-schoolers thanks to the fact that he played his prep career in New York and is a cousin of Marbury, has already been offered a shoe deal worth at least $12 million, sources told ESPN.com. Smith, who is known for his athleticism and stylish dunks, has been offered more than $20 million for a shoe deal, according to a source with knowledge of the talks. Smith, though, didn't live up to expectations when he didn't even make it to the final round of Monday's McDonald's slam dunk contest, which was won by a girl -- 17-year-old Candice Parker, who has committed to Tennessee.
Players who are expected to declare for the 2004 NBA draft inherently know not to reduce their value by showing any bias towards a particular shoe company.
Despite the fact that Howard's high school team wore adidas, as did his AAU Atlanta Celtics team, the potential No. 1 overall pick knows not to hurt his shoe endorsement earning potential by leaning either way.
"It's an open game," Howard said. "Adidas or Reebok and Nikes are cool, too."
Although many shoe marketers say they won't negotiate through the media, many feel as though that many of this year's crop of high school prospects are quiet. Howard, Livingston and Smith show flash on the court, but they are relatively reserved off it.
"I'm not the flashy, outgoing type off the court," Smith said. "I just don't put myself out there like that."
"I would never tell Josh to change how he is right now," said Walter Smith, Josh's father. "A lot of guys are known as the big talkers, but that's not too attractive. The companies should want the players to be who they are, not who they aren't."
Howard appears to be the wild card. His love for theater and singing, braces on his teeth and strong outspoken beliefs in Christianity could all be seen as negatively impacting his "street cred," the buzz word that marketers have used to explain who has the goods to sell to kids in the urban neighborhoods. Also, big men in the NBA still haven't proven to be good shoe sellers.
Although some say playing in college might help with future marketability -- Telfair and Smith have at least committed to Louisville and Indiana, respectively -- Vaccaro warns that Anthony's situation was truly unique.
"Syracuse got knocked out of the Big East tournament last year," Vaccaro said. "If they didn't make the run in the tournament, Carmelo wouldn't have gotten $3 million a year he got from Nike. Some team is going to win the NCAA championship this year, and I bet that most of the players won't make 15 cents off of it. The shoe companies only give money to those guys who they think have the ability to make it in the NBA and have the charisma to help sell their product."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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