There's no limit to the number of people who'll be stalking LeBron James now: the Fortune 100 companies, the moguls seeking relationships, the cutting-edge entrepreneurs who want to publicize their products or services and, in return, make themselves and LeBron even richer and more famous than they already are.
He's the undisputed king of basketball, worldwide, which spikes his global appeal in a way pro football players -- whose popularity is confined to America's shores -- don't dare dream. And this second championship victory, coming against a team as revered by the purists as the San Antonio Spurs, puts LeBron in rarefied air. It further shushes the noise from people still angry over "The Decision" and squashes the skepticism about how great he is as a basketball player. One NBA championship is a wonderful thing, something that eluded Hall of Famers as accomplished as Charles Barkley and John Stockton. Two championships puts LeBron dead-even with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon and -- even though LeBron is not yet 29 years old -- threatens to move him into the conversation with Larry Bird and, perhaps down the line, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Even before this second NBA championship, LeBron's marketing strategists had completely redefined the dynamic between a sponsor and celebrity endorser, at least in the realm of the iconic athlete. The topic comes up not only because LeBron's second title leads us to look at his immediate future, on and off the court, but also because the perception in some quarters is that he had a relatively low commercial profile on television during the playoffs.
In this day and age, the bottom line means strengthening the brand, which may trump any other measurement in popular culture. And not many brands are as high profile as LeBron's these days, even though he still has his critics. With Forbes reporting LeBron's endorsement income at $42 million last year, he trails only Tiger Woods, Roger Federer ($65 million each) and Phil Mickelson ($44 million) in that category. But Forbes also reports that his second NBA title will probably mean a $5 million to $7 million increase in endorsement income in 2013 (and that estimate could be conservative given that NBA 2K14 is going to be LeBron's first video game cover). You wonder how much Peyton Manning's endorsement portfolio is worth? It was estimated by Forbes to be $12 million last year. Drew Brees: $11 million. Aaron Rodgers: $6 million. Usain Bolt: $24 million.
One recent Sunday during an ABC doubleheader, my colleague Magic Johnson said he was surprised that LeBron was in so few television commercials. Fewer obviously than Blake Griffin, whose charming Kia spots seemed to run during every timeout of every game, and fewer than Chris Paul, whose "Cliff and Chris" State Farm commercials were omnipresent as well. LeBron's face didn't pop up as often as Kevin Durant's and Dwyane Wade's in their awake-from-a-nightmare Gatorade spot or even as many times as Shaq's for Buick. LeBron's new "Beats" ad had not yet run at the time, and it prompted Magic to say aloud that he couldn't understand why a four-time MVP and reigning NBA champion was on less often than lesser players. Quite frankly, as someone the same age as Magic, who defines the world through television and not social media, I wondered the same thing. And if you think players' endorsement portfolios are irrelevant, you'd be unspeakably naïve considering the time and attention devoted to them.
That prompted an ongoing dialogue with some of the people who orchestrate and oversee LeBron's marketing/branding as to how different the advertising world is now than it was for, say, Magic and Michael Jordan when they were setting the athlete endorsement standard 25 to 30 years ago.
As someone in LeBron's strategizing group told me recently, "It's the next level of involvement. It's not just your face on a product. It's an increasingly complex business relationship."
And it doesn't involve only television, not with so many companies wanting to reach younger consumers who aren't as TV dependent as the generation of consumers fascinated with Julius Erving, Magic, Bird and Jordan were. After a self-imposed social media blackout during the playoffs, his first celebratory post was an Instagram video, which ran the day after Instagram's new video feature was released. Some of LeBron's sponsors will debut an ad exclusively on his Facebook page to get an exact handle on how much "sharing" is taking place. The sporting goods store Champs has a strictly digital relationship with LeBron, meaning access to his Facebook page that has 14.4 million followers, and his website. No television commercials, no print ads, by design.
Yet, readers of "The Old Gray Lady" have also opened their New York Times to Page 2 of the A section to see a black-and-white ad of LeBron wearing an Audemars Piguet, the high-end Swiss watch previously styled by the likes of tennis players, international soccer icons and race car drivers. He's wearing a tux, and in an ad planned for the not-too-distant future, LeBron will be wearing a Piguet watch he helped design.
There are also ads we couldn't possibly see sitting in the Los Angeles studio or even on a sofa in South Florida. LeBron has a Dunkin' Donuts campaign that appears only in China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Clearly there's not a whole lot of resentment in Asia over "The Decision" or LeBron hooking up with D-Wade and Chris Bosh. LeBron has visited China every year since 2004 to increasingly popular reviews. In China alone, he has deals with Sprite, Nike, Dunkin' Donuts and Beats by Dre headphones. According to a person with knowledge of the product moves, LeBron sells as much product in China as he does in the U.S.
And don't forget the basics, either: The LeBron line was responsible for $300 million of Nike shoe sales in the U.S. in 2012, up 50 percent from 2011 (even without a shoe campaign).
"It's not an 1980s-1990s construct," a person familiar with the strategy told me. "There is a mix. There are traditional relationships, like with McDonalds. … And there are less traditional or nontraditional relationships, like with Beats. The number of times an ad runs on television is no longer the end-all. … It's an entirely new world because of all the technologies and social media."
The "Beats by Dre" commercial, which began running late in the playoffs and through the NBA Finals, is traditional in that it's a television ad, but is not traditional in a number of other ways. For starters, LeBron essentially came up with the idea and designed the company's first pair of "sport" headphones. Beyond that, he picked the director for the shoot, selected the music and has a financial stake in the product.
It's not quite the same as Kia signing Griffin to an endorsement deal. LeBron's relationship with Beats is as radically different an arrangement as it was nearly 30 years ago when Michael Jordan said, "I'm going to have my own line of shoes," and a great many folks thought Nike executives had lost their minds.
Yet, there's no risk in terms of the strategy. Forbes reports that LeBron is the highest-ranked athlete in the world and 23rd overall in terms of his "web rank," meaning he's ahead of Tiger, David Beckham, Kobe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and, for that matter, Tom Cruise and Reese Witherspoon. Forbes ranks LeBron 15th in celebrity power, behind people like Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber, but ahead of every athlete except Tiger.
So, we went from discussing why LeBron wasn't on television as often as Paul or Griffin to wondering how much exposure, globally, could be too much.
"We're clearly concerned about oversaturation," one person involved in LeBron strategizing said. "Simply by saying something he can control the news for three days. And [companies] are thinking, 'OK, what's the value of that?' It's a different paradigm than 'How many commercials can you do?'"