Kobe Bryant's recent scoring-fest might help him make up for lost time in the marketing world.
The Los Angeles Lakers guard, whose 81 points Sunday night in a win over Toronto is the second-highest single-game total in NBA history, saw his endorsements wane following a sexual-assault allegation 2½ years ago. Nutella, McDonald's, Spalding and Coca-Cola all chose not to renew their contracts with Bryant after they expired.
But Nike, which signed him to a five-year, $45 million deal in June 2003, has kept its relationship with Bryant. His Nike apparel line (called the Izzo) is currently in sporting goods retailers around the country, and his first signature shoe by Nike -- called the Zoom Kobe I -- is scheduled to hit stores Feb. 11, to be priced at $130 a pair.
"It's tough to get into the head of the 10- to 20-year-old shoe buyer, but 81 points certainly helps to open up a lot of eyes in the youth basketball world," said Jay Gladden, a sports marketing professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Jeff Chown, president of Davie-Brown Talent, a leading entertainment marketing agency, said he thinks the signature shoes will sell. But Chown isn't sure that Bryant will be embraced by a new roster of companies anytime soon..
"Kobe's performances on the court will help him get back to where he once was, but he's not there yet," Chown said. "I think there's still the sense that he has a lot of baggage, and there is still some resentment that he was the one who broke up the Lakers."
One source told ESPN.com in December that Bryant's representatives were in talks with a video-game company and a fast-food chain for possible endorsement deals. Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, did not immediately return a call Monday seeking comment about any new deals.
But there are signs pointing to a Kobe popularity revival in the business world.
Two versions of Bryant's jersey are among the top-25 best sellers this season, according to Neil Schwartz of SportScanINFO, a market retail tracking firm. Schwartz says that Bryant's jersey didn't make the top 50 last year, although sales of Bryant jerseys at the NBA Store in Manhattan and on NBA.com were strong enough for the league to announce that the 27-year-old had the fifth-most-popular jersey sold.
"His star is definitely rising," Schwartz said.
In an ESPN.com SportsNation Poll, more than 40 percent of voters said that Bryant was the best player in the league, and, at last count, Bryant was second only to Yao Ming in votes received for the All-Star Game in Houston on Feb. 19.
Bryant was charged with sexual assault in July 2003. Criminal charges were dropped in September 2004, and a civil case eventually was settled the following March. According to Umbria, a company that analyzes buzz concerning subject-specific keywords on the Internet, talk of Bryant's sexual-assault charges had tailed off by last June, and the focus moved toward his performance on the court.
It hasn't been all positive, though. That same month, an ESPN poll revealed that fans considered Bryant to be the eighth-best athlete in all of sports to endorse a product. But the same poll also reflected that he was the worst athlete to endorse a product, below the likes of Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson.
And Genius Insight, a New York-based marketing and research firm, had Bryant ranked No. 1,939 out of 2,005 celebrities on its StarPower likeability rankings list tabulated last week. That's the lowest Bryant has been on the list since the company started doing its rankings five years ago.
"He really lost the female audience," said Paul Jenkins, a partner in the firm. "That won't stop Nike from making money on athletic shoes that are targeted to males, but it doesn't speak well for other categories where women have more influence over purchases. That being said, scoring 81 points can't hurt him."
Gladden reasons that younger fans who might not be able to afford Bryant's $130 signature shoes themselves also might not be as affected by the opinions of their parents.
"This current generation of parents, generally speaking, wants to give their kids what they want," Gladden said. "If kids think that wearing the Kobe shoe is going to be cool, that's going to override what the parents might think about Kobe, the person."
And being "cool" with Kobe's shoes these days might be more important to kids than playing basketball in them. According to a poll by market-research firm NPD Group, only 34 percent of basketball shoes are actually used for playing basketball.
Earlier this year, Bryant joined Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor as the only players to score at least 45 points in four consecutive games. Bryant, who is averaging 35.9 points per game, also became the youngest player to score 15,000 points in a career.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.