Kobe's image adrift in negative 'stratosphere'

Three years ago, Kobe Bryant was a sports marketer's dream. Clean-cut, untarnished and talented, the Los Angeles Lakers guard parlayed these attributes into more than $10 million in off-the-court earnings.

Then came felony sexual assault charges in Colorado, and Bryant's life changed.

After a swirl of media attention and speculation that lasted more than a year, the charges were dropped in September 2004, and in March, Bryant settled the civil case. Throughout the ordeal, his play on the court remained consistent. The same cannot be said for the corporate appeal of Bryant, who was suddenly guilty of no longer being the perfect spokesman.

Still, as the 2005-06 season begins, Bryant is one of the league's top earners off the court, thanks in part to a Nike deal that will pay him approximately $8 million a year for the next two seasons.

But his image has taken a hit. Gone are deals with Nutella, McDonald's, Spalding and Coca-Cola, companies that all opted not to renew their contracts with Bryant. Aside from Nike, his only deal is a memorabilia contract with Upper Deck.

So can Bryant still be used to pitch products to the public?

Nike, which signed the star just weeks before he was charged with sexual assault, apparently still thinks the 27-year-old is valuable. In July, Bryant -- two years into his deal -- appeared in Nike advertising for the first time. Later that month, the company released a sneaker with a logo created especially for Bryant.

However, while Nike officials did not want to comment on how they feel about Bryant and what the company's future plans are for the embattled star, opinionated observers aren't so sure Bryant is ready to be a successful pitchman again.

Henry Schafer is one of the skeptics. His company, Marketing Evaluations, compiles Q Scores, the metric for measuring a celebrity's popularity.

In March 2003, 23 percent of the population thought of Bryant in a negative light, according to the company's surveys. Two years later, 48 percent perceived Bryant negatively. That's the second highest negative rating among athletes on the list -- second only to Latrell Sprewell.

"Right now he's pretty much at the height of negative perception for athletes out there," Schafer said. "He's kind of in the stratosphere by himself."

Those who have had marketing relationships also aren't convinced that Bryant's current endorsement potential is particularly promising.

"Was he an adulterer? Absolutely," said John Lewicki, senior director of U.S. sports marketing for McDonald's, whose contract with Bryant expired on Dec. 31, 2004. "He said he was. But here's the problem with Kobe: He talked a different walk. He put himself above all that and yet he got caught up in it. So he was hypocritical. You can't tell me that I'm better because you're not like that when you are. So your credibility is shot."

Dan Touhey is the vice president of marketing for Spalding, a company whose relationship with Bryant started in 1998.

Once Bryant was charged, Spalding scaled back its outward association with Bryant and removed his images from its Web site. Bryant never appeared on company materials again and his contract expired this summer.

"I think Kobe is very misunderstood, and he's not the type of player who comes out, gets down on the altar of forgiveness and says, 'Forgive me,' and that's his prerogative," Touhey said.

Some marketers say Bryant has done little to regain the trust of potential consumers. Bryant and his agent Rob Pelinka turned down a request to be interviewed for this story.

"When a social incident happens, [some] personalities react to the public almost immediately. They come on interview shows or talk shows ... and say, 'Look, I made a mistake,'" Schafer said. "They say, 'I'm sorry and I'm going to do whatever I can to make up for it and change my life and I hope you understand that situation.' He never really said that."

One measure of Bryant's waning popularity can be seen in a declining number of parents naming their newborn boys "Kobe."

From 2000 to 2003, during which the Lakers won three straight NBA championships, the name Kobe was ranked among the top 265 most popular names in the United States each year. But in 2004, the name Kobe hit a seven-year low, ranking No. 415, according to data based on new Social Security card registrations.

Los Angeles Times columnist J.A. Adande isn't convinced that Bryant's popularity decline is completely related to the events that took place in Eagle, Colo. His fall from grace, Adande reasons, could also be related to his constant feuds with Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson, with Bryant often being called the instigator. It's telling that O'Neal ranks as the most positive active athlete among all athletes in the Q Scores.

"What's interesting to me is it seemed like Lakers fans seem to give him more the benefit of the doubt for the sexual assault allegations than they did for the accusations that he ran Shaq and Phil out of town," Adande said. "So, he almost lost more status in 2004 than he did in 2003."

In addition, immediately after O'Neal's departure, the Lakers missed the playoffs for only the fifth time in the team's history, reinforcing Bryant's image problems.

"People care about results first and foremost," Adande said. "And what hurt Kobe Bryant the most in the last year was the Lakers didn't have winning results. You can have all the Nike ad campaigns you want, but if this team isn't winning, if you don't see him playing past Memorial Day, he's not going to be considered a winner."

Although corporations have shunned Bryant, his appeal has not completely disappeared. Last year, his jersey was the seventh most popular jersey purchased at the NBA Store and on NBA.com.

And Bryant might still be one of the best spokesman for males ages 10 to 27, according to research performed by Umbria Communications, which produces market intelligence based on discussions taking place on the Internet, including blogs, message boards and chats. Monitoring in the first quarter of this year, reflected that that demographic felt more positive about Bryant than any other NBA player except LeBron James. "We were very surprised," said Dave Howlett, the company's vice president of product management.

NBA executives and their TV counterparts aren't shying away from putting Bryant on the grand stage this upcoming season. They've scheduled the Lakers on 33 national broadcasts -- a league high.

And it can only help Bryant now that Jackson is back for another run.

"If he can embrace Phil Jackson and let his on-the-court game shine, that's all the young consumers care about," said Steve Stoute of Translation, a New York-based brand imaging firm. "If he can turn this team around and take them to the playoffs, Kobe is going to be money."

But Schafer isn't completely convinced that Bryant's success as an endorser is directly tied to what he can do on the basketball court this year.

"His negative reaction has grown to unusual heights for an athlete," Schafer said. "It's almost one out of two people that know Kobe Bryant [who] don't feel good about him. So what kind of message is that sending to the advertising and marketing world of how consumers feel about Kobe and how they're interpreting the [sexual assault] charges and the [out-of-court] settlement?"

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