- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Darko Milicic doesn't have the name recognition of LeBron James, the championship credentials of Carmelo Anthony or the enormous following of Yao Ming. He has a difficult-to-pronounce name, speaks less-than-perfect English and remains a relative unknown to almost everyone but NBA insiders.
His pockets, consequently, aren't flush with the cash that comes from lucrative endorsement deals that have lined those of the other three. Despite being projected as the No. 2 pick in Thursday's NBA draft behind James and ahead of Anthony, Milicic will have to prove himself to marketing executives who have shown a willingness to pay handsomely for the right player's endorsement.
So while James is cashing in on his can't-miss potential with a Nike shoe deal that pays him more this year (more than $13 million) than he will make in salary for his first three seasons on the Cleveland Cavaliers' payroll, Milicic quietly signed a modest endorsement deal with shoemaker And 1, a memorabilia card deal with Upper Deck for a fraction of the payoff and a deal with fashion designer Ermenegildo Zegna. Those LeBron-like blockbuster deals, for the time being at least, will have to wait.
"If foreign players want to get big endorsement deals in this country, they have to play well on a winning team, work hard on their English and be willing to get out in the community and shake the hands of a lot of corporate decision-makers," said Bill Sanders, director of marketing for BDA Sports, which represents many international players, including Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, and Zarko Cabarkapa in this year's draft.
Since arriving from China a year ago, Yao has commanded widespread media attention for his unusual height (he's 7-foot-5) and even bigger game (he averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks). But before he ever proved himself worthy of banging in the post with the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, marketing experts saw his potential to tap into the enormous Chinese population, both domestically and abroad. By the All-Star break, he was peddling Apple's Powerbook computers, Visa credit cards and Gatorade sports drink in the U.S., and pitching a cell phone video game in China and recently inking a deal with Pepsi.
"Yao has become what he has because his personality has transcended the language barrier," said Herb Rudoy, who represents several international players, including Arvydas Sabonis, Toni Kukoc, Pau Gasol and Mickael Pietrus, the latter a possible top 5 pick this year.
"Yao is lightning in a bottle," Sanders said. "He's from China, he's larger than life, he's at the top of his game and he's got a great personality -- and it's all four of those that come together that make him successful off the court. If Tiger Woods wasn't good looking or didn't have a good smile or didn't win a whole bunch of majors, he wouldn't be so successful in the endorsement world either."
While there are two billion reasons that made Yao a multi-millionaire before the Rockets picked him first in last year's draft, Milicic is finding out the hard way that Serbia-Montenegro is a long way from Shanghai.
Standing 7 feet tall and already a year of professional experience under his belt, 17-year-old Milicic appears to have a bright future ahead in the NBA. But with little more than 10 million people that populate his homeland, he just can't give corporations a foot in the door to an untapped market the likes of China. His predecessors from Yugoslavia -- Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and the late Drazen Petrovic -- did well in the NBA but have never earned the big bucks off the court.
Foreign-born prospects typically find the greatest popularity, at least initially, in their home country. Whether endorsement deals present themselves overseas is dependent on that country's economy, presence of international brands and overall interest in basketball.
This year's draft does not figure to be so much a Who's Who of well-known players plucked from the college ranks as much as a Who's That? of foreign players with tongue-tying names. In addition to Milicic, three other European players -- Maciej Lampe, Mickael Pietrus and Aleksandar Pavlovic -- figure to become lottery picks and go by the 13th selection in the draft. In all, as many as eight Europeans and 11 foreign players overall could go in the first round.
Being among the few NBA players from a particular country can help a player build a following in the U.S. But while playing either in a large market or for a competitive team can help build their name brand, foreign players benefit mostly by playing in cities that have a strong immigrant population from their home country.
Lampe, projected to be picked as high as fifth on Thursday, would become the first Polish-born player to suit up for an NBA game. But his best shot at earning significant endorsement deals might be to slip to the Chicago Bulls at No. 7. Chicago is home to the second-largest Polish population outside of Warsaw.
"It would be big if he came to the Midwest," said Keith Kreiter, Lampe's Illinois-based agent. "It will be even bigger in Poland. It will instantly become a holiday when he is drafted. That's where the real dollars are. Back home where they become national heros."
That worked for San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker, who was born in Belguim and played in France. Before he helped the Spurs to an NBA title, he already had become a hot item overseas, gracing the cover of EA Sports' NBA video game sold in France and paid to peddle Bolle sunglasses and Nike apparel. He is presently negotiating another deal with a large clothing manufacturer, his agent Marc Fleischer said.
After helping the Detroit Pistons reach the Eastern Conference finals, Mehmet Okur began to garner interest in his homeland of Turkey, said Fleisher, his agent. Aside from Okur's deal with Nike, he endorses a local jean company and negotiations have commenced on a soft drink deal.
Eduardo Najera might come off the Dallas Mavericks bench, but he reportedly earns more than $1 million a year in endorsements thanks to being the only Mexican in the league and his team's proximity to Mexico. Najera has deals with TelCel, a telecommunications company, Anheuser-Busch and Nike.
The NBA has helped raise awareness of its players in hometown markets. They have satellite offices in Mexico City, Germany, Beijing, Paris and Barcelona.
"If a player wants to market himself, it ultimately comes down to the players ability to play the game," NBA International spokesman Terry Lyons said. "Marketing opportunities will come after that."
Kreiter said making sure the public knows about the foreign player's story is very important to his marketability, though Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he would like to see the story of his players spread to those who may not have already heard them.
"We need to extend the storylines as far as how we reach casual NBA fans," Cuban said. "I would rather see Dirk (Nowitzki) and Steve (Nash) ... promoted in Teen Beat, Elle, People and US Magazine as entertainers rather than in Sports Illustrated. We are in the entertainment business and we need to promote our guys no differently than a movie or music star is promoted."
For now, the stories of this year's new crop of foreign players remain under development.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com
Darko Milicic could become this year's Yao Ming, but he'll have to prove himself worthy of any lucrative off-the-court paydays.