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Monday, July 21
Updated: July 24, 12:49 PM ET
 
Exposure that money just can't buy

"Image is nothing, thirst is everything."

-- Former advertising slogan of Sprite, which used the line in a commercial featuring Kobe Bryant and Grant Hill

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

Five years ago, Sprite was playing off Andre Agassi's 1990 Canon commercial in which the burgeoning tennis star proclaimed, "Image is Everything!" Those managing the soda brand might have thought it was the perfect tongue-in-cheek response to the popular tagline. Today they might have a different take.

In light of Friday's news that Kobe Bryant had been charged with sexual assault, companies that pay the 24-year-old huge endorsement fees have been mum on their future commitment to the Los Angeles Lakers' star guard. Although morality clauses that are standard in large endorsement contracts might allow a company to terminate its deal with Bryant, those that collectively pay him between $11 million and $15 million annually are, at least now, apparently willing to wait it out.

Meanwhile, Bryant's numerous lucrative endorsement deals with high-profile companies continue to be mentioned in article after article.

Nike. Sprite. McDonald's. Upper Deck. Spalding.

It is all likely to be viewed as unwanted publicity, said Mike Paul, an image consultant and expert in reputation management with MGP & Associates PR.

"Every time a company is mentioned as being associated with Kobe Bryant, it is an advertisement," Paul said. "But the difference here is that stories have more credibility than advertisements do."

Nike, which recently signed Bryant to a five-year deal worth more than $40 million, has received the most media exposure connected since news broke of Bryant's July 4 arrest. The world's largest athletic shoemaker has received between $4.5 million and $5 million in equivalent advertising exposure from stories relating to Bryant on the Internet, television and radio and in newspapers, according to Eric Wright of Joyce Julius & Associates, a sponsorship evaluation firm.

McDonald's, which last featured Bryant in a commercial in which he played on a pee-wee league team, received about $2 million in equivalent advertising, while the Sprite brand received a similar amount of exposure, Wright said.

"The Nike deal is being referenced a lot, but since it is so new, it's possible that the negative impact could hit Coke harder since they've had the association with Kobe for a longer period of time," Wright said.

Upper Deck and Spalding were mentioned enough to receive at least $1 million in advertising exposure.

Bryant is still on the front page of the Web site of Spalding, which has featured the Lakers guard in commercials for its "INFUSION" basketball.

"We're taking it one day at a time," said Dan Touhey, vice president of marketing for Spalding, which has Bryant under contract for another two years. Bryant was featured in the company's print advertising in April and May, but he last appeared in a television commercial for the company two years ago, Touhey said.

Upper Deck spokesman Don Williams said the company would have no comment on the Bryant charge.

"This story is still in the early stages and these exposure numbers could obviously increase substantially since every day there's going to be more talk about this," Wright said. "The key for these brands is when all these stories reach the street level and people start making an instant association with Kobe."

It is not known to what extent the companies associated with Bryant are pulling back their plans. Sprite aired a commercial featuring Bryant earlier in the summer, but a Coca-Cola official said that it was only a coincidence that the advertisement has not appeared since Bryant was charged on Friday.

"We had a mix of Kobe and Sprite Remix ads in the beginning of the summer, but starting in July, as per our media plan, they are now all Sprite Remix," said Scott Williamson, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, which signed Bryant in 1997 and has a contract with him through 2005.

Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of PHD USA, a media buying firm, said he doesn't expect any of the companies Bryant endorses to go against the grain and put him out there with their company's logo in tow.

"I expect they'll lay low and wait until after the trial," DeCabia said. "But at some point they'll have to question whether they want to be there after the trial. There could be a lot of backlash and they have to think about moving forward if they don't think it's worth it."

Backlash to their bottom line is the ultimate fear.

"From the company standpoint, the best they can hope for is that the story is only about the legal side and doesn't mention their company by name," Paul said. "Coke doesn't want a teenager to walk into a grocery story and see Sprite, laugh and say, 'That's what Kobe endorses.' They might still buy it, but that's not the association the brand wants."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com






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