- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Michael Jordan appeared on Gatorade bottles, but he never had his own flavor. The new darling of the sports marketing world, LeBron James, will have that privilege when 32-ounce bottles of Powerade's FLAVA23 hit stores next month.
James participated in the process to select his namesake flavor. This past winter, Coca-Cola chemists went to the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland and put cups of sample flavors in front of the NBA Rookie of the Year, who, like Jordan, wears the number 23. James chose a red sourberry flavor. He then selected the color of the drink from a palette of possibilities, ultimately arriving at something very similar to the Cavaliers' wine color.
"I love the way it turned out," James said, in a statement. "I think all my fans will enjoy it too."
The premise behind the athlete having input in a signature product was originally the concept of Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, who believed that the association between the two would help to create a stronger connection with the consumer. Hatfield, who oversaw the design of James' Air Zoom Generation shoes, started working with athletes in that fashion, beginning with Jordan, in 1987.
"When LeBron was working with Nike, he was giving them input as to what he wanted in his signature shoe," said James' agent, Eric Goodwin. "We went through the same process here."
James' association with Coca Cola's Powerade will test the ability of the company to sell sports drinks in the same manner Nike has sold shoes. While Jordan could be credited with helping Gatorade keep its position as the market leader as the sports drink category grew at a rapid pace over the past decade, Jordan's association didn't significantly help increase market share.
While Jordan didn't get involved in the sports drink making process, packaging for Gatorade's Citrus Cooler said it was his favorite.
"Because LeBron was integrally involved in the development of Powerade FLAVA23, it truly reflects his personality -- bold, cutting-edge, and unique," said Javier Benito, president of the retail division and chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola is counting on James to have a greater effect with Powerade, which has experienced considerable growth since it was brought to market in 1992. Powerade's share of the market is currently 14.9 percent compared with Gatorade's 81.2 percent, according to Beverage Digest, an industry trade publication. James' deal with the Powerade and Sprite brands is worth approximately $2 million a year, but there are incentives in his contract that will reward him if it is determined that his endorsement leads to greater sales.
"People aren't running around in a panic here," said Gatorade spokesman Andy Horrow. "Real athletes who need to hydrate don't buy a drink because an athlete is on the bottle, they buy a drink because of what's in the bottle."
James' endorsement of Powerade created a somewhat awkward situation on the Cavaliers' bench this past season. Although the team has a deal with Gatorade, James was hardly caught drinking from Gatorade-branded cups or towels with Gatorade logos on them. Instead, James often used blank towels and drank from water bottles with the label ripped off.
In James' Powerade commercial, where he was shown swishing full court shots, James didn't appear in Cavaliers garb since Gatorade is the official sports drink of the NBA. No marketing of James under the Powerade brand will be able to utilize NBA team marks, though Coca-Cola will be able to have James wear his official outfit in commercials with Sprite, which does have a deal with the league.
Tied to the Powerade drink will be a LeBron comic book published by DC Comics titled "King James." Powerade drinkers can obtain the comic book, which comes in 10 collectible covers, by sending in proofs of purchase or, at participating stores, getting the comic on site with the purchase of Powerade product. Both Powerade and Nike appear in the promotional cartoon, which could grow into something much bigger for LeBron, who, after seeing the first proof, requested that his character be portrayed with larger muscles.
Goodwin said he will be meeting with movie and television executives to talk with them about the idea of having a James animated cartoon series or film. In 1996, Jordan starred in "Space Jam" with Looney Tunes characters including Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig. The movie had a worldwide gross of $225 million. The James comic, Goodwin said, also could turn into a series of children's stories or coloring books.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.email@example.com.
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