As he casually strolled into the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility during the week leading up to the start of NBA training camp this fall, Kobe Bryant was clad in his usual black Nike trackpants and tee, wearing an unlaced pair of his latest low-cut Kobe AD sneakers.
It was nearly 11 a.m., admittedly several hours after the 18-time All-Star was known to arrive for the early morning workouts that became a hallmark of his 20-year Hall of Fame career. While he still looked the part, he glanced ahead at the current Lakers putting up shots on the team's dual court practice floor, then veered left along the entry hallway, instead toward the franchise's plush 30-seat film and media room.
Bryant is known to joke that everyone saw the last time he's played in a basketball game. He clearly wasn't here to announce a comeback. Ever since leaving the league for good over two years ago, the Laker great has been working on an array of ventures in his budding business, media and storytelling portfolio that was launched as part of a $100 million joint venture investment firm.
For the past 18 months, his drive has been centered on the creation of a new performance-driven body care brand, Art Of Sport, bringing him home to the Lakers' facility to help host the company's launch preview alongside his current teammates, CEO Matthias Metternich and entrepreneur Brian Lee. The new brand will offer essential products including deodorant, body wash, sunscreen and soap bars, using insights from Bryant at the onset to help inform their botanical rich formulas.
Now seasoned in his sifting of potential partners, Bryant says he's developed a three-tiered approach over time to help decide on which projects and products to pursue ... first validating the concept, adding to it, then executing. There was an instant intrigue with Art of Sport.
"The first thing you do is go, 'Wait, nobody does this?'" he said, with a laugh. "Then, it's 'Can I contribute to the product? Is this a product that I can get behind, I can understand and I can enhance in some form or fashion?'"
As the curious Bryant discovered during his initial conversations with Metternich, in the $14 billion body care industry, most traditional brands have relied on longstanding formulas for items like deodorant or body soap, simply updating their packaging with "Sport" badges to appeal to athletes. The pair decided they could do things differently, together launching a brand that, as Metternich dubs it, is "born for sport."
"The important thing when you build a brand for athletes is making sure that the stories, those emotional components and the spirit that's associated with those activities resonates," Bryant said.
Already in his post-playing career, he's found success with investments both slow and sudden. There was his initial $6 million investment in sports drink BodyArmor in 2014, just three years after the company was founded. It's now worth more than $200 million, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell, after Coca-Cola's recent minority stake purchase drove the valuation well north. Bryant's production company, Granity Studios, earned an Oscar award this year with his debut animated short, "Dear Basketball." He's hoping and expecting for Art of Sport to find similar success.
"Athletes are becoming more curious about business. It's not just signature shoe deals anymore," Bryant said. "The athletes have become much more savvy about the [business] industry as a whole and they want to learn more about the building of a company and about being a part of a company from Day 1. That's a big shift from the way sports used to be."
While Bryant is credited as a co-founder, AOS brand partners also include reigning NBA MVP James Harden, MLB All-Star Javier Báez, NFL star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and a series of action sports champions, all pictured together in a team photoshoot that's been showcased across each of their social media channels.
"As we went through that R&D period with Kobe, we decided we were also going to build out a team of the best athletes in the world from across different sports," Metternich said. "A diverse team that could provide lots of different perspectives as we continued to develop the products."
Their early big-picture talks centered on Bryant's approach and dedication to his craft over the course of his career, and what potential product attributes would help him recharge and refresh for the repeated work, day after day. As Metternich and Bryant got closer to refining the product assortment and eventual lineup, Kobe leaned on the learnings from one of his most impactful endorsements to date -- his Nike sneaker series -- and looked to infuse the element of storytelling and framing that's helped to make his signature shoe line so coveted through the years.
"If you take what we've done in the shoe game, and you know how we've gone about the naming process -- for example, the Mamba Mentality and how the story connects -- it's important that our product not only benefits you from a physical standpoint, but how can we use the name of our products to give you inspiration," he said.
Rather than lean on oft-used industry terms like "fresh" or "cool," Bryant personally crafted the three launch scents for the brand -- Rise, Challenge and Compete -- tapping into his at-all-costs mentality that's fueled his on-court career and the next chapter of his life in business.
"Whether you're on a basketball team or you're sitting in a meeting, you're still dealing with people and still dealing with the same emotions and same fears," he added. "The discipline is different, but the inner challenges remain the same."
Adding yet another brand venture to his existing stable, Bryant has high hopes for the LA-based Art of Sport company to fuse his passions of athletics, business and performance all together.
"When you say that you're focusing on the athlete, sports is such a great metaphor for life," he said. "We feel like we're speaking to the athlete through our communication, our branding and our messaging, but we're connecting to the spirit of it."