- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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After being carried by the sales of "old school" looks for the past couple years, the NBA expects to have its greatest merchandising year ever thanks to the appeal of rookies LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
The league estimates its merchandising revenues will rise to at least $3.3 billion in gross sales, which could mark the first time that the NBA surpasses the NFL in licensed product sales. In 2003, NFL-licensed items grossed $3.2 billion, with the NBA and Major League Baseball pulling in $3 billion, according to the upcoming issue of License! Magazine.
James and Anthony ranked first and second, respectively, on the NBA's jersey sales list this year, which is based on sales through NBA.com, the league's Web site, and at the NBA Store in New York City.
Since James' jersey hit the market on June 26, more than 1.5 million Cavaliers jerseys with his name and No. 23 -- 5,542 per day -- have been sold nationwide, according to Neil Schwartz, director of marketing for SportsScanINFO, a sports retail tracking firm. The league sold more than 630,000 of Anthony's Nuggets jersey.
"LeBron and Carmelo have had the greatest impact of any rookie tandem in the modern age of merchandising," said Sal LaRocca, the NBA's senior vice president for global merchandising.
Fueled by the sales of James and Anthony's jerseys, both the Cavs and the Nuggets leapt into the top 10 in league sales after dwelling in the bottom third for the past five seasons.
"They both came in with big preseason hype and they both had tremendous seasons and proved that they could have staying power," said LaRocca, noting that the last time a group of young players made a significant contribution to league merchandise sales was in the early '90s when jerseys of the Orlando Magic's Shaquille O'Neal and the Charlotte Hornets' Larry Johnson were on the must-have list.
Popularity of Johnson and O'Neal's jerseys were undoubtedly helped by the fact that they played on recent expansion teams. Although the Cavaliers and the Nuggets have been in the league for more than 30 years, both teams redesigned their uniforms and unveiled new logos this season, likely a secondary factor to each team's sales bump. The Cavaliers returned to their traditional wine and gold colors, while the Nuggets took on new shades of blue and yellow.
The Lakers remained the NBA's most popular team on the jersey list. They have ranked first four times in the past five years.
Kobe Bryant, embroiled in a legal battle throughout the season after being accused of sexual assault, dropped from his No. 1 position last year to No. 7 this year, still outselling his teammates Shaquille O'Neal (No. 9) and Gary Payton (No. 11).
"Kobe is still selling well," Schwartz said. "But there are fewer variations of Kobe jerseys on the market this year than last year."
Just like last year, the Knicks finished behind the Lakers. Although fan favorite Latrell Sprewell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, point guard Stephon Marbury -- who was traded to the New York Knicks from the Phoenix Suns three months ago -- came in third in the rankings behind the two rookies.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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