Rookies battle on merchandise front

NEW YORK -- It was a night so cold that even the most prepared to the brave the winter wind had picked up their pace through the streets of Manhattan. But the name "LeBron" and the countless images of the basketball phenom on the corner of 34th Street and 7th Avenue was enough to stop some in mid-stride.

Most seemed curious to see what the spectacle was all about -- the 80-foot billboard featuring James and the line of more than 100 people standing on the red carpet outside the FootAction shoe store as the Rolex clock across the street approached midnight. A few passers-by, in the holiday shopping spirit, joined the line after reading the sign in front of the store's door.

"Midnight Madness! Get YOUR LeBrons!"

Shortly after the clock struck 12, Nike's quest to profit off the Cleveland Cavaliers star began. Those who seemed critical of the shoe giant's record seven-year, $100 million investment -- which doesn't include the millions of dollars the company plans to annually spend advertising James' line -- should have seen this spectacle, even though the frenzy was a distant second to the hype of Air Jordan shoe releases.

But as intriguing as it is to observe the meteoric rise of James as a salesman and an iconic figure -- he was recently named one of the most fascinating people of 2003 by Barbara Walters -- a story of perhaps equal intrigue is developing as rookie Carmelo Anthony and his Denver Nuggets continue to surprise the basketball world.

Although LeBron slightly edges Anthony in points per game (both hover around 19 points per game), the Nuggets have won twice as many games, 16 victories to the Cavaliers' eight (through Dec. 22). If the Nuggets somehow make the playoffs, that could help Anthony edge out James in the Rookie of the Year race. Last season, Amare Stoudamire beat out Yao Ming in part because Stoudamire's Phoenix Suns made the playoffs, while Yao's Houston Rockets did not.

'Melo ranks second only to James in NBA player jersey sales and memorabilia dealers have sought to buy every shoe and headband he wears on the court this season. So where's Anthony's signature shoe?

It's not coming to a sporting goods store near you any time soon.

When Anthony declared for the draft after leading the Syracuse Orangemen to the NCAA title, he told his representatives that he would only be comfortable wearing Nike shoes and apparel. Anthony signed a six-year deal worth approximately $18 million and was assigned to the Jordan brand, which is owned by Nike but has its own marketing and public relation teams.

The move seemed like a no-brainer. Nike was hotly pursuing James and a five-year commitment to Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was in the offing. If Anthony was made a Jordan athlete he had a chance to be promoted more than under the Nike brand with LeBron and Kobe on its roster. But days after the deal was announced in June, Bryant was accused of sexual assault and plans to aggressively market him were halted.

Although Anthony, who appears with New York Yankees shortstop Jeter and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Sapp in the Jordan brand's latest commercial entitled "I am not Michael Jordan," represents the brand's greatest opportunity for a signature shoe since it was launched in 1997, his fans will have to be patient.

"Michael is big on letting Jordan athletes earn their stripes," said Jackie Thomas, director of marketing for the Jordan brand. "We're going to give Carmelo some room to breathe and at the same time it gives us more time to come up with a product collection that is uniquely Carmelo."

The Carmelo collection, which could include a signature shoe, is scheduled to launch in December 2004.

"I'm very confident in Jordan's plans to maximize Carmelo's visibility and marketability," Anthony's agent Calvin Andrews said. "And what Nike has done with LeBron is great for a business in which the marketplace was in a down period."

As the Jordan brand works on Carmelo, Nike already is fine tuning James' second shoe and apparel line that will come out next year. Sources say the basic design is done and Nike lead designer Tinker Hatfield has said the second shoe will be more definining of LeBron than the current Air Zoom Generation, which was styled after LeBron's car, the Hummer H2. But Anthony says he can't worry about matching LeBron's off-the-court success.

"I don't think about things like that too much," said Anthony, who wears Jordan 18.5's, the brand's latest shoe list that hit shoe stores in early November. "Would I love to have my own signature shoe? Of course. But if I worried about things like that, I'd be too stressed out to play my game."

Although a smaller group of NBA stars are getting signature shoes than the host of players that had their own shoes in the early '90s, Anthony's performance has prompted retailers to question when thy will receive an Anthony product.

"The fact that there is no Carmelo product on the market means that there's going to be pent up demand," said Shawn Neville, president and CEO of Footstar Athletic, which owns more than 500 shoe stores across the country under the FootAction and Just for Feet names. "Nike calls it demand creation. The more people talk about it, the more buzz it creates. And the longer people are asking for something they can't have, the better the performance will be when something does come out."

Sonny Vaccaro, who has worked for Nike and adidas and now oversees athlete relationships at Reebok, says that the lack of Carmelo product on the market is due to the fact that Nike doesn't want to cannibalize its cash cow in James.

"Carmelo is going to be the most undermarketed great player of this generation," said Vaccaro, who first lured Jordan to Nike with a five-year, $2.5 million deal in 1984. "The way Nike does things, they can't possibly have two stars. It was Michael and then way below him (were) guys like Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler. That's why it's going to be hard for Carmelo to have his own identity under the brand."

Thomas refutes Vaccaro's assessment, saying that the Jordan brand "has no plans to undermarket Carmelo."

Perhaps that means if Anthony is able to legitimately challenge James for Rookie of the Year, fans might be asking for the Melo's in yellow sooner than you think.

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