Bryant's jersey takes sales slide in December

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kobe Bryant is no longer a fashion icon.

For the last month, Bryant's No. 8 Lakers jersey -- previously one of the best sellers in the world -- has fallen out of the top 50, according to point-of-sale data tabulated by a Florida market research firm.

Bryant's NBA jersey was still the 10th highest-selling jersey for the year, but he finished the month of December at No. 72 -- and in one week plunged to No. 90, a drastic slide for the player many once saw as the sport's next marketing golden boy.

"I would never have thought it would have dropped off like this,'' said Neil Schwartz, director of marketing and business development for SportsScanINFO in West Palm Beach, which tracks weekly sales data from sporting goods retailers nationwide.

Bryant's marketability has likely been hurt by the flurry of bad press he's been receiving lately, analysts say. It began with his rape case and included his feud with former teammate Shaquille O'Neal, his spat with current teammate Karl Malone and a new book by former coach Phil Jackson that portrays Bryant as an aloof prima donna.

Before the season started, O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat
and Jackson retired -- departures that many fans have blamed on Bryant.

"I was a big fan, but I just can't wear his jersey anymore,'' said Patrick Buan, 27, of Victorville, Calif., who last month put his four Bryant jerseys up for sale on eBay.

Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, did not return calls seeking comment. Nike Inc., Bryant's main sponsor, also declined to comment, saying only that Bryant remains under contract with the company.

Officials at AEG, which owns Staples Center, said sales of Bryant's jersey had dipped noticeably at the store in Staples Center in recent weeks. They said the problem began early this summer as Bryant prepared to face criminal rape charges -- which were later dropped after his accuser said she did not want to
participate in the trial.

Alan Fey, vice president of merchandising for AEG, said the manufacturer got skittish while the case was pending.

"He's such a significant player that (they) weren't willing to make all those goods and have him go to jail," he said.

But a spokesman for Reebok Inc., which makes Bryant's jerseys, said the company doesn't speculate on a player's marketability -- and doesn't have to. Greg Grauel, the company's senior vice president of apparel merchandising, said Reebok supplies inventory to retailers on demand.

Schwartz said Bryant's legal troubles could account for a drop in sales in the summer and possibly at the beginning of the season -- but not in December.

In June -- when the preparations for Bryant's rape trial were going full tilt -- three of Bryant's jerseys occupied the first, third and fifth spots in terms of units sold, according to Schwartz, whose company tallies numbers from a wide range of retailers, including JC Penney, Sears and Sports Chalet.

Industry insiders say that while fans may have been willing to look the other way during the rape scandal, they seem far less willing to forgive him now for what they see as the breakup of a championship team.

"I think a lot of people were understanding of the rape trial, because there are a lot of cases of players being entrapped,'' said Bob Dorfman, executive vice president of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. "But it's all about winning -- that's what tickles the cash register. When he jeopardized that by singlehandely blowing apart the team, it was the final straw for a lot of people.''

The drop in sales is being felt in a wide variety of retail venues -- from small sporting good chains to the Lakers' memorabilia hub at Staples Center.

"Kobe's jersey was a core part of our business -- and now with the team going in the direction it has, we've ordered less and seen less of a demand,'' said Mike Batt, general manager of Fanzz in Salt Lake City, a sporting goods retail chain with 32 stores.

While both McDonald's and Nutella have let their contracts with him expire, Nike Inc. has stood by Bryant but has yet to use him in a single ad, even in ones touting Bryant's own shoe. Although Nike sank a reported $40 million into a multiyear contract with Bryant, multiple industry sources told ESPN.com's Darren Rovell that Nike had no plans to market him aggressively, despite the debut of the new Air Zoom Huarache 2K5 shoe, which Bryant wore in the Lakers' Christmas matchup with the Heat.

"There's too much at stake for Nike to want to tarnish their brand image by using him,'' said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

While the drop in sales is surprising, it's unlikely to make a dent in Bryant's personal fortune. In June, Forbes.com ranked him as the 10th highest-paid celebrity of 2004, earning $26.1 million from June 2003 to June 2004 in salaries, bonuses, prize money, appearance fees -- as well as his Nike endorsement.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.