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Will brush with law raise Kobe's 'street cred'?

By Darren Rovell

In May, Nike signed an unproven 18-year old prospect named LeBron James to a seven-year, $90 million contract. A month later, the shoe giant signed Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant -- a three-time NBA champion in the nation's second-largest television market -- to a five-year deal reportedly worth $5 million less per year than James.

Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant
When it comes to shoe sales, Kobe Bryant, right, has chased Allen Iverson, left.
When sports marketers on the outside looking in were asked to come up with an explanation, some reasoned that Kobe's product would have a tougher time selling in the coveted urban neighborhoods, where disposable income is limited but sports shoe and apparel buying occurs with more frequency than other segments of the population.

Bryant lacked the all-important street credibility, they said, and although the defining characteristics of "street cred" remain unclear, some said Bryant didn't match up to the appeal of Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. Just look at the shoes of those lined up to bang the rock against the concrete surrounded by the chain-link fences -- there are plenty of Reebok Answer 6's and adidas T-Mac IIs. Was it that Kobe's signature adidas brands were just too funky-looking, or was it that the kids didn't dream of being like Kobe?

Some suggested that Kobe could relate better by roughing up his clean-cut image. However, most sports marketers agree that greater street credibility won't come to Bryant and the companies he endorses -- Nike, Sprite, Spalding, McDonald's and Upper Deck -- if Bryant is charged and is found guilty of sexual assault. Bryant posted a $25,000 bond on Friday but has not yet been charged.

When street credibility is debated, it is often in the context of guns and bar fights, not allegations of sexual assault.

Last summer, when Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers' All-Star guard, was charged with 14 counts related to allegedly forcing his way into an apartment with a gun and threatening two men, published reports suggested that the incident helped sell more Reebok shoes among urban youth. Iverson, who was later exonerated on all counts, has a lifetime deal with the shoemaker. Reebok officials have since denied that Iverson's legal activity helped put more money into Reebok's coffers.

"Getting in trouble is a lot different from being a realist," said Henry "Que" Gaskins of The Ad*itive, a cultural marketing communications firm that advises Iverson. "Getting in trouble didn't help Allen. It's the fact that he says he's not perfect, that he's going to make mistakes, and people genuinely understand that. Combine that with what he does on the court and the fact that he doesn't come off as manufactured."

For a select few, negative situations automatically turn themselves into positives. But for the majority of the population, a wrong doesn't translate into success.

"When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear or any time he's causing trouble, he's probably selling more pay-per-view fights," said Peter Montoya, author of the "Brand Called You," a book on the personal branding process. "But I can't believe that any negative helped Allen Iverson or would help Kobe Bryant. The marketing analysts that say that getting in trouble makes you more credible in the streets are just trying to sound clever, but the idea that that really exists is asinine."

Those who deny that committing a crime can help bridge the gap between millionaire athletes and young inner-city youth point out that players such as McGrady and James have plenty of street cred and a clean record to boot.

Getting in trouble doesn't necessarily buy you street credibility. ... If there is a segment of the population who would relate to Kobe more if he is found guilty of something like this, that population will be small enough that it won't significantly impact sales of his product line.
Patrick Rishe

"Getting in trouble doesn't necessarily buy you street credibility," said Patrick Rishe, who teaches sports business at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. "LeBron hasn't done anything wrong, yet the kids relate to him because he's closer in age and he appears to be less polished than Kobe is. If there is a segment of the population who would relate to Kobe more if he is found guilty of something like this, that population will be small enough that it won't significantly impact sales of his product line."

"The kid on the street needs to like Kobe and he needs to like the shoe," said Paul Heffernan, executive vice president of New Balance, which doesn't pay any of its athletes to hawk its product. "If the shoes that Kobe was wearing weren't good, I'm not sure the kid would buy them.

Plans for Kobe-branded Nike apparel have not yet been released. When Kobe signed his new deal last month, he admitted he had no idea why he wasn't street credible.

"I've heard it said, 'Kobe doesn't have any street cred' and that's why my shoes won't sell," Bryant told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher. "I don't think that's the real perception on the street. I went to Rucker Park and it was all love. Basketball heads know basketball."

One factor that Bryant can't control is his upbringing.

"The biggest problem with Kobe's street credibility is that he doesn't come from the streets," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing firm. "His father played in the NBA, he lived in Europe in an upper middle class home. Not too many athletes had that type of upbringing. So it's hard for these kids to relate to him."

If Bryant is not charged and allegations are proven to be false, it's possible that the incident could actually help him gain more street cred.

"There are plenty of stories of kids being treated unfairly in the criminal justice system," said Jay Coakley, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. "If they see that this happened to Kobe, there's a link between the two that has never been there before."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for

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