|Friday, April 25
Updated: July 22, 5:10 PM ET
Let the bidding begin
By Darren Rovell
April 25 might be remembered as the date superphenom LeBron James skipped college and entered the NBA draft, but May 22 is the date the market value for James' shoe deal could be determined.
One shoe company executive predicted that such a deal could be worth more than $5 million per year.
"The shoe companies definitely have an interest in what market LeBron will ultimately go to," said Tom Shine, senior vice president of global sports and entertainment for Reebok. "A large market is usually better than a small market and because so many people are watching highlight shows, an East Coast team is usually better than a West Coast team. If he's playing in a market like Seattle, the only time he'll consistently make the highlight shows will be at 7 a.m."
If Shine is right, the odds favor James. Thanks to how teams finished the season and barring a trade, teams from the Pacific Time Zone -- Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Seattle SuperSonics -- have only a 10.2 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery. The Clippers have an 8.9 percent chance of winning the lottery, while the Warriors and the Sonics have a greater improbability with a .7 and .6 percent chance, respectively.
"The market he winds up in won't make much a difference in terms of selling shoes," said John Eckel, global director of Hill & Knowlton's sports marketing practice. "We've already seen he's the kind of talent that the media will cover whether he's playing in Cleveland or Timbuktu and his highlights figure to be among the best so they will run over and over again."
Eckel said the greater determinant of how many shoes James will sell may be how the winning shoe company manages to build credibility in light of the millions of dollars it will pay to put James' name on its shoes.
Two and half years ago, Nike paid Tiger Woods about $100 million for his second five-year deal with the company. Nike officials made the point that the contract did not require Woods to switch from Titleist to Nike clubs, making Woods' eventual switch to Nike irons appear to be credible.
For James, credibility can be established by playing on a winning team, and making the playoffs sometime in the first three years could be an important factor for the brand that wins his services.
"It's clearly better for him to play on a bad New York Knicks team than a bad Cleveland Cavaliers team," said Bob Dorfman, sports analyst for Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. "But if Nike or Adidas could wish for a particular team, it's also pretty important to have him go to a team with a good upside that has a supporting cast that is good enough to turn things around and make the postseason."
Although it was once believed that the battle for James was negotiating exclusively between Nike and Adidas, Shine said Friday Reebok executives did not previously comment on its interest "out of respect for James' amateur status." Shine said he promises to present James and his agent -- the favorite candidate being Seattle-based Aaron Goodwin -- "a very innovative offer."
Nike executives also have been quiet, though its position as the leader in the athletic shoe market led Merrill Lynch to recommend Nike stock in early March partly based on an analyst's belief that Nike's signing of James was inevitable. Sonny Vaccaro, Adidas' director of basketball, predicted three weeks ago that the total value of James' first deal could be as much as $50 million.
"I respect Sonny very much," Shine said. "But his thing is psychological warfare. Everything that has happened before today was just the regular season. Now it's the postseason -- where it really counts. The only thing I do know is that it's going to get very interesting."
Besides James, other high-profile players in the shoe deal free-agent market include Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, former Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony and Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, though a deal between Bryant and Nike is believed to be a formality. Bryant parted ways with Adidas and Reebok announced it had dropped out of the race.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.