Three years ago, Dwight Howard was the "can't-miss" endorser of the sports world. He had brought his Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers and his playful ad-lib videos as a Vitaminwater spokesman were going viral.
"Dwight was one of the best I've ever worked with," said Rohan Oza, Vitaminwater's chief marketing officer at the time. "He was very easy going, really creative and had some incredible acting chops."
In just five years, Howard had gone from a lanky, somewhat shy, high school senior to a man who, like his Orlando Magic predecessor Shaquille O'Neal, had taught himself how to embrace the Superman in him.
"When the Magic made the Finals, Dwight would have been considered a top 10 endorsement prospect for most major brands and he was getting a number of opportunities," said Darin David, a sports marketing director at The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based firm that publishes the Davie-Brown Index poll.
But Howard's wishy-washy ways in Orlando since he first demanded for a trade in December, and the tension he created, hasn't helped his standing with fans. Today, if he donned the Superman cape, as he did the 2008 and 2009 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contests, Clark Kent likely would sue for defamation.
In May 2010, 20 percent of consumers that knew of Howard (about 40 percent of the population) said they liked him "a lot," according to a poll taken by The Marketing Arm's Davie-Brown Index (DBI). Last month, when the DBI poll was taken again, less than 9 percent said they liked him "a lot," with more than a quarter of consumers who said they disliked him. Those who were part of the poll also distrusted him significantly more than they did two years before.
In May 2010, the DBI results showed that Howard was as appealing as Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose. Last month's numbers show his appeal is in line with Stan Van Gundy, the coach who said that it was Howard who asked for him to be fired, a claim that Howard later denied.
"What marketing executive wants to make Howard the face of their brand after watching last season play out?" Darin said. "He may be on the Lakers now, but he should be hands-off from a brand perspective for at least the short term until he can repair his image."
While Howard's marketability has declined, his move makes the Lakers the most marquee team in the league, said Patrick Ryan, co-owner of The Ticket Experience, a Houston-based ticket brokerage.
"After the Heat won the championship, they became the hottest ticket in the league," Ryan said. "With the Howard trade, I'd say the Lakers coming to town is the hotter ticket in 75 percent of the arenas."
Ryan said that while Howard didn't do many favors for himself, his new villain role makes the Lakers even more intriguing.
"Kobe is already the most polarizing star in the NBA," Ryan said. "Now, you add Steve Nash and have Howard who goes from a WWE superstar to a WWE heel."
For his part, Oza, who now runs a private equity firm, says he feels optimistic that Howard can recover his lost appeal.
"Dwight has an amazing energy that is very infectious and feeds off the energy around him," Oza said. "I think the Lakers will be a positive environment for him and his brand cache will go up now that he will be embraced in Los Angeles."