Kobe Bryant will be put on Nike's backburner for another basketball season.
Though still on the hook for a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with Bryant, Nike has no plans to aggressively market the embattled Lakers guard, despite plans for Bryant to debut a new shoe on Christmas, according to multiple industry sources contacted by ESPN.com.
Bryant will sport Nike's Air Zoom Huarache 2K5 shoe, in purple and gold, during the Lakers' Dec. 25 showdown against the Miami Heat. The shoe will be released in March, though not in the colors Bryant will be wearing.
"Nike would probably want to be circumspect to prominently associate Kobe and the shoe," said Howe Burch, a former Fila marketing executive who now heads up Twelve Sports Marketing. "But that doesn't mean that they can't market it on a viral basis without shouting on every street corner that this is Kobe's shoe. Nike is very good at marketing under the radar screen."
Although Nike did not utilize Bryant in an advertising campaign last year, it was well known throughout the industry that he was playing with the Air Huarache 2K4 model. Nike only mentioned the connection on its Web site, but retailers were impressed with the sales.
Shortly after signing his deal with Nike, Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Colorado. Though the criminal case was dismissed in September, Bryant still faces civil proceedings. While talk of a possible settlement has been mentioned, attorneys for the plaintiff have said they may file a second civil suit in California, a venue in which the monetary limitations that exist in Colorado are not an issue.
Although Bryant's marketing value has been reduced in the wake of the legal fight, most morality clauses require a conviction in order to terminate an endorsement deal.
In 1999, Chris Webber won a $2.6 million judgment from Fila, after it terminated his contract when he was charged with marijuana possession. The judge ruled that Fila had the right to terminate the contract only if Webber had been convicted.
Nike officials have refused to comment since Bryant was charged, other than to reiterate that he remains under contract. Bryant's agent Rob Pelinka would not comment on the status of his client's contract.
In light of Bryant's sexual assault charge, McDonald's and spread maker Nutella chose not to renew their deals with him in January. Bryant remains under contract with Spalding and Coca-Cola through 2005, but Spalding spokesman Dan Touhey says the company has no plans to use Bryant in advertising in the immediate future.
Bryant's jersey is currently ranked seventh in the NBA, according to sales on NBA.com and at the NBA Store in Manhattan. He finished last season at No. 7 in the rankings after holding the top stop at the end of the 2002-03 season.
"If Nike thought that he wasn't marketable, they wouldn't have signed him in the first place," Burch said. "If they thought that he has recently lost his connection to kids, they would find a way not to use him. But, whether it's his teammates who don't like him, his former coach writing a book or his pending civil trial, it's hard to argue that he's not getting noticed."
Bryant's absence in the marketing world has meant that Nike -- which owns a 40 percent share of the world's $17 billion athletic shoe market -- will have to rely on the success of Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James. James' second shoe, Air Zoom LeBron II, hit stores in early November. James is averaging 24.8 points per game, good for fourth best in the league and two spots below Bryant's 26.9 points per game.
"Nike should let him wear the shoes and let kids see them on him, but they should continue to put their money in LeBron," said Bob Dorfman, sports analyst at Pickett Advertising. "If they tried to do anything aggressive, it would just be a public relations fiasco and that's what they are probably afraid of."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.