Nike cautious with $40M investment

Kobe Bryant's marketability might have taken a big hit, but don't be surprised if the Los Angeles Lakers guard is seen pitching shoes in the near future.

A reported resolution of the civil suit faced by Bryant could clear the way for his re-emergence on the advertising scene.

Sources told ABC News on Tuesday that Bryant has agreed in principle to a settlement with the woman who accused him of sexual assault.

Days before Bryant's June 2003 encounter with the woman, Nike had signed the Laker to a five-year contract worth at least $40 million.

But charges were soon filed and, once the case hit the courtroom, sponsors that had established a relationship with Bryant, including the shoe and apparel giant, were cautious not to use him in advertising. As a result, one of the NBA's most dynamic stars has not appeared in a television advertisement in the past 20 months.

If the settlement between Bryant and his accuser is finalized, the seven-time All-Star would emerge from both a criminal and civil trial without being convicted. It might not only prevent Nike from invoking a potential morals clause to devalue the deal, but could make it more comfortable for executives to go forward with him.

Despite its $40 million investment, the company has held Bryant from its advertising, instead concentrating on the beginnings of its seven-year, $90 million deal with LeBron James.

Though Bryant didn't appear in television or print advertising last season, Nike still put him in a new shoe, which many Bryant fans knew was the Air Huarache 2K4. The shoe sold very well.

The shoe Bryant is wearing this season, the Air Huarache 2K5, debuts in three colors in three weeks.

While Nike is not expected to put Bryant in commercials immediately, shoe retailing sources, who previously had indicated Nike would not use Bryant for the rest of the basketball season, now say they've been told the shoe company still might use Bryant in the near future. Despite his off-court troubles, many in Nike's core young market still support Bryant.

"We have maintained that there has been no change in the status of Kobe's contract with us and we look forward to continuing to work with him," Nike spokesman Rodney Knox said.

Bryant's last spot was a Sprite commercial shown in July 2003. His contract with the Coca-Cola brand expires this season and, with James now the NBA face of the brand, it's unlikely Bryant will appear in another commercial for the soft drink.

In the midst of his legal battles, some brands Bryant endorsed opted not to renew him in 2004, including McDonalds and Nutella.

Bryant's agent Rob Pelinka was not available for comment as to Nike's future plans with his client.

Sports memorabilia company Upper Deck and basketball maker Spalding have continued their relationship with the Lakers guard, though Bryant can no longer be found on the Spalding Web site. He is not included in the set of 10 players featured on the company's new "jersey" balls.

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