LeBron James signs deal with Sprite

Updated: August 21, 2003, 5:22 PM ET

ATLANTA -- Basketball phenom LeBron James has signed a six-year marketing deal to endorse Sprite and Powerade, a move an analyst said will deflect attention from parent company Coca-Cola's affiliation with Kobe Bryant.

The company in early July stopped running Sprite ads featuring Bryant, who is charged with sexually assaulting a woman in Colorado on June 30.

Company spokesman Scott Williamson said Thursday the deal with James -- this year's No. 1 NBA draft pick -- was "unrelated to Kobe Bryant's situation." Terms were not disclosed.

Todd Stender, an analyst with Crowell, Weedon and Co. in Los Angeles, said that regardless of the company's motivation, the timing of the deal is good for Atlanta-based Coke.

"What's important to Coca-Cola is taking the immediate attention away from Kobe Bryant and Sprite and attaching it to a new player like LeBron James," Stender said. "He's going to be the biggest name this season in the NBA. There's a lot of excitement around him."

Bryant, accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado, has said there was no crime and the sex was consensual. He is free on bond and has a preliminary hearing Oct. 9.

Earlier, Coke said it planned to stop running Bryant ads temporarily even before the accusations against him were disclosed. Coke reiterated Thursday that Bryant is under contract with the company until 2005, though Williamson could not say what role Bryant will play in future Sprite ads because they are still under development.

James' deal with Sprite and Powerade includes extensive marketing activities for the two brands, including advertising, promotions and appearances. James will be a key spokesman for Sprite, a role that has been played by Bryant.

"I have been drinking Sprite and Powerade for a long time," James said in a statement. "I have always admired the way Sprite and Powerade spoke to young people and athletes, and I can't wait to be a part of it."

Last week, Gatorade pulled out of negotiations with James, the Cleveland Cavaliers rookie who has already secured over $100 million in endorsement deals, including a $90 million contract with Nike.

James twice was named Gatorade's Player of the Year, and it had been assumed he would become one of its pitchmen, following in the footsteps of his idol, Michael Jordan.

In addition to the Nike deal, James has signed a $6 million contract with Upper Deck trading cards. The 18-year-old Akron, Ohio, basketball star entered the NBA draft out of high school. He has a $13 million contract with the Cavaliers.

Shares of Coke fell 28 cents to close at $43.61 in trading Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.


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