#360USA: Nike deal proves LeBron's might

Steve Brenner 12:33 14/12/2015
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James is catching up with Jordan in shoe sales.

Superlative numbers on the court, bewildering figures off of it. LeBron James remains an absolute colossus with basketball in hand and, as the statistical landmarks continue to rack up (devour his individual achievements on Wikipedia if you can spare a few hours), the man rightly known as “King James” further cements his place on the Hall of Fame throne.

The 30-year-old takes residence alongside the likes of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of the most consistently brilliant sportsmen of this, or any other era.

Turn on the TV here in the US and, more often than not, James will be on screen. Whether he’s relaxing in a comfortable Kia car or pumping iron while wearing Beats headphones, LeBron’s brand is almost impossible to ignore. He’s a relentless, one-man marketing machine.

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Yet the figures flying around this week following Nike’s decision to hand the Cleveland Cavalier a lifetime deal were quite remarkable. It’s believed the contract – the first of its kind in the company’s proud 44-year history – is worth a cool $500 million. That’s a rather welcomed $30 million a year. Being a legend really does pay.

“It’s clear LeBron is already one of the all-time greats and this will transcend beyond his playing career. The increased success of his brand as a signature athlete is why this contract has been agreed,” a highly-placed Nike source told Sport360.

Any of those highly enjoyable, yet ultimately irreconcilable, debates about who’s the greatest player of all time would have James pitted against that other Swoosh superstar, Michael Jordan. In reality, only Jordan can match him.

The sportswear giants have made more versions of James’ signature shoe than any of their stellar performers other than the Chicago Bulls legend whose affiliation with Nike has elevated him into the realms of the financially unbelievable.

Ever since the Air Jordan brand showcased its apparel for more than just basketball, Jordan has become the highest-paid retired sportsman in the world. He is worth $1.1 billion. Not bad for someone who retired 12 years ago.

These huge contracts, however, aren’t new in the NBA. Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant signed a $300 million agreement with Nike last year, having been pursued voraciously by the Stephen Curry-backed Under Armour who are snapping at their heels. Adidas have also splashed the cash, throwing $200 million to Houston’s bearded wonder James Harden in a 13-year deal. 

In 2014, people wanting to walk like the King earned Nike $340 million. To place those numbers into context, Durant’s shoe sales were second-best at around $180 million, while the retiring Kobe Bryant was next with $105 million. Those sales alone undoubtedly prove that when it comes to marketability and popularity, James really is in a league of his own.

James, who signed for Nike in 2003 just before the draft on a seven-year, $90 million contract, is racing along in MJ’s slipstream, especially considering sales of his latest shoe are tipped to reach $400 million.

Unequivocally, Nike owns the basketball shoe industry, possessing an incredible 95.5 per cent of the $4.2 billion market last year. James has driven sales with stratospheric acceleration.

“I’m very humble, man,” James said. “It’s been an unbelievable time for myself and my family, and I’m just grateful that Nike and [Nike founder] Phil Knight and everyone over there just believed in a skinny 18-year-old kid from Akron, Ohio, and I’m happy to be a part of such a great company.

“We’ve done a great job of building my brand to this point today. We want to just continue it. If it makes sense for us to have a ‘Team LeBron,’ or whatever the name will be, we’ll take a look at it and we’ll go from there.”

Nike’s revenue has tripled since James’ signing, with the stock price rocketing up more than 1,000 per cent.

“LeBron and I have been in love and obsessed with Nike since we were kids,” said Maverick Carter, James’ business partner. “For LeBron, he’s thrilled to know he’s a Nike guy for life.”

I bet he is.

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