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Thursday, August 21, 2003
James signs six-year marketing deal with Coca-Cola

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

First came a $90 million endorsement deal with Nike. Then, a $5 million partnership with Upper Deck.

On Thursday, LeBron James pumped millions more into his portfolio by signing a six-year marketing deal with Coca-Cola that will pay him more than $2 million per year. Sources said it is the largest beverage deal signed by a basketball player. Jeff Gordon's deal with Pepsi and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s deal with Budweiser are believed to be higher.

"From the very beginning we said we wanted a company that would be willing to allow LeBron to transcend the athletic world," James' agent, Aaron Goodwin, said Thursday. "The fact that he is endorsing a lifestyle as well an an athletic brand is evidence of that."

Coca-Cola announced it will use James in campaigns for both its Sprite and Powerade brands, which will include special LeBron packaging. Powerade is second to Gatorade in sports-drink sales with about 14 percent of the market. Gatorade owns 83 percent.

It is believed that James will receive some sort of additional compensation should Powerade grow during the endorsement deal.

"I've been drinking Sprite and Powerade for a long time," James said in a statement released Thursday. "I have always admired the way Sprite and Powerade spoke to young people and athletes, and I can't wait to be a part of it."

Coca-Cola has not announced any change in its relationship with endorser Kobe Bryant, who has been charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado woman. Bryant, who endorses the Sprite brand, has a contract with Coca-Cola that runs through 2005.

Negotiations for the deal with James began well before Bryant's legal troubles arose. Bryant's Sprite ads stopped running in early July, around the time his situation was made public, but Coca-Cola officials have said that a phasing out of those ads was part of the original plan.

Goodwin said that, in the course of negotiations, Coca-Cola officials never said the company was signing James to replace Bryant.

"If he's found not guilty, he's still under contract and I think they can still use him," said Brandon Steiner, chairman of Steiner Sports Marketing.

Company spokesman Scott Williamson said Thursday that James' deal was "unrelated to Kobe Bryant's situation." There is speculation that until Bryant's issues are resolved, Coca-Cola will not use Bryant in advertisements, although Coca-Cola officials won't publicly say as much.

"Sprite has a long history of working with multiple players at the same time," Williamson said.

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming also is under contract with two beverage brands, Pepsi and Gatorade.

Goodwin said, "We're hoping that LeBron can help in the resurgence of Powerade just like he could help in the resurgence of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball."

James, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this summer, will be able to appear in his Cavaliers uniform for Sprite, since Coca-Cola has used its NBA sponsorship on the Sprite brand since 1994.

But James will not be able to appear in uniform for the Powerade brand because Gatorade has been the NBA's sports drink sponsor since 1984.

Gatorade, which is owned by Pepsi, announced last week that it was pulling out of the LeBron drink sweepstakes. James won Gatorade's high school boys basketball player of the year in his junior and senior years at St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio.

"LeBron James has brought more excitement and anticipation to the game of basketball than any player in recent history, and we think he's just getting started," said Jeff Dunn, president of Coca-Cola North America.

Although Gatorade has a sponsorship deal with the Cavaliers, as the biggest endorser of its competitor, James is not expected to use towels or cups that carry the Gatorade logo.

The deal also calls for James to possibly endorse other Coca-Cola products. The Dasani brand appears to be a natural fit because the NBA does not have an official sponsor for water and the company would be able to use James in uniform promoting the brand should it choose to sign an additional deal with the NBA.

Goodwin said that he will now turn his attention to finding an endorsement for James in the fast food or quick service categories.

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