- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Imagine if "The Chosen One" became The Frozen One.
You can see it now: LeBron James, the preps-to-pros phenom who has redefined the word "hype," begins to feel the mounting pressures put upon an 18-year-old thrust into the limelight, what with all the commercial shoots, magazine covers and 24/7 media scrutiny. And now here's Kings guard Mike Bibby staring him down in his first NBA game. Suddenly LeBron stops, the ball frozen in mid-dribble. Someone in the crowd holds up a sign that reads "All Hype" and the announcer says, "You talk about not being able to handle the pressure."
It being just a commercial, of course, LeBron laughs it off as Nike's swoosh fills your TV screen.
Hype meets reality when LeBron James makes his NBA debut tonight in Sacramento. There won't be a set director to choreograph his every move. No image-makers to remind him to smile when he dunks. No character actors paid to guffaw on cue. What happens on the court will be in LeBron's hands. He will be left to do with the ball as his instinct, athletic ability and Cleveland Cavaliers coach Paul Silas allow him.
Off the court, though, marketers have defined exactly how they want LeBron to be seen and, if both Nike's aforementioned commercial and an upcoming Sprite ad, due out tonight, are any indication, offer the first glimpse of the person that companies have committed a collective $118 million for him to be.
No Michael Jordan prodigy. No Tiger Woods clone. Nothing like Allen Iverson or Kevin Garnett. He is who they want him to be: Himself.
"A lot of the branding of LeBron will be natural and believable characteristics that he already possesses," said Lynn Merritt, Nike's senior director of U.S. basketball. "All we are doing is bringing him to the public. Most folks know that LeBron is a phenom and that he's a good basketball player, but they don't know that he's a smart, witty kid."
That's exactly how Sprite plans to present James in his first commercial for the Cola-Cola brand. In the ad, James is hanging out with his friends when an announcer on TV begins talking about the hype surrounding James. Feigning a pain in his neck, James begins to move his head from side to side, a crackling sound coming with each move. As concern fills the room, James reveals that he has hidden an empty Sprite bottle behind his neck.
"What sets him apart and makes him unique is that he is the most hyped athlete in the history of any sport," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for Pickett Advertising, whose clients include the PGA Tour and Oakland Raiders. "These firms realized that they had to use it, instead of ignore it."
A month before he was selected with the first pick in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, James began signing endorsement deals and the money began piling up: A seven-year shoe and apparel deal with Nike, worth $100 million. A five-year memorabilia deal with Upper Deck, worth $6 million. A six-year beverage deal to pitch Sprite and Powerade, worth $12 million.
But James didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Raised by a single mother with shallow pockets, he bounced around from one low-income housing complex to another throughout his childhood in Akron, Ohio.
But James' life is now filled with the spoils of athletic riches, from diamond earrings to a loaded Hummer SUV. And given that his endorsement deals are well publicized, it creates a challenge for the companies that are paying him handsomely to put an "authentic LeBron" on display in its advertising campaigns.
"Jennifer Lopez tried to tell us she was the same old 'Jenny from the Block,' and she got laughed at," Dorfman said. "He's not the same exact LeBron, but what you hope is that he has the same personality and same rawness that still makes him real."
James, for example, appears in the Sprite ad wearing Nike-designed and "King James"-logoed apparel, much like Tiger Woods appears in a Buick commercial wearing a Nike hat.
Matt Kahn, Sprite's senior brand manager, said he wasn't concerned what James wore in the commercial because it was clothing that he would normally wear. A source with knowledge of James' Nike deal said the contract does not require James to wear Nike gear in another company's commercial.
"We signed LeBron because we felt he was a confident, cool, charismatic leader that epitomized our brand," Kahn said. "And he turned out to be exactly what we were hoping for."
Of course, the bottom line is what counts and these companies are banking heavily on the prospect that the phenomenon of LeBron James will translate to increased sales for the brands that he endorses. To that end, Sprite plans to plaster his image across a billboard in downtown Cleveland and around one-liter beverage bottles that will hit shelves in select areas of the country. Nike will make LeBron's new signature shoe, the Air Zoom Generation, and its accompanying apparel line available beginning Dec. 20, just in time for Christmas.
The NBA, too, hasn't been shy about leveraging LeBron's marketability as he heads into his rookie season. Teams have tied multi-game ticket packages to the purchase of a ticket to a Cavaliers road game. Most of Cleveland's games at home and on the road figure to be sold out. No less than 13 Cavs games will be nationally televised, perhaps all of them due to LeBron's presence.
"There are certain players that don't need branding help," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "What we have witnessed is a phenomenon where a high school senior -- whose team put his games on pay-per-view, played him in a college gym, traveled him to tournaments and then postseason tournaments abounded -- was as well known as any player that we've drafted. ... I assure you the NBA had nothing to do with that, as we had nothing to do with the preseason hype other than we'd schedule him."
Thanks in part to James' arrival, league licensing revenue worldwide is expected to rise 20 percent this year, said Sal LaRocca, the NBA's senior vice president for global merchandising.
More than 425,000 LeBron James jerseys, in sizes ranging from baby to pro-cut model, have been sold since their debut in late June, according to SportsScanINFO, a sports retail tracking firm. And fans can also purchase an assortment of apparel and collectibles with James' image at the NBA Store, from T-shirts to bobbleheads to coins to garbage cans.
All this before he has played his first game.
"We have a long-term view of LeBron," said Kahn, the Coca-Cola executive. "We already know that he embodies the lifestyle, so his short-term play on the court is not really a concern to us. Very few rookies excel out of the gate."
Said LeBron, in an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal: "People are going to expect me to do things; I expect to do things, too. I came in at the right time, but people do automatically think I'm going to be an All-Star my first year."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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