With his captivating smile and a wholesomely hip persona that appeals to teens on the playground and millionaires in the front row, Kobe Bryant (search) has established himself as one of the top marketable athletes of his era.
That image is in jeopardy, however, following a 19-year-old woman's accusation that Bryant sexually assaulted her. He hasn't been charged, but the allegation alone raises questions about the NBA star's marketability.
"They haven't charged him yet and people are already tearing down his personality," media buyer Tom DeCabia said.
Just last month, the Los Angeles Lakers (search)' guard signed a multimillion-dollar sneaker deal with Nike to go with contracts he already has with Sprite, McDonald's and Spalding.
In a worst-case scenario, Bryant could lose up to $150 million in potential earnings, according to estimates by Bob Williams of Burns Sports and Celebrities Inc. (search) Last fall, Williams' firm commissioned a poll that listed Bryant as the third-best product endorser in sports, behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
Williams says Bryant's clean-cut image has taken a permanent hit, the repercussions of which aren't fully known.
"There's damage done," he said. "The shocker was that he was even in the situation. If you had to pick a handful of athletes who would never get in a situation like this, he'd have probably been on your list. There's a shock factor that people will remember."
Bryant was married in 2001 and became a father in January. He wore his baby girl's hospital ID bracelet in his first game after she was born, enhancing his wholesome image, and later appeared in ESPN ads carrying a case of diapers.
David Carter, head of The Sports Business Group marketing firm in Redondo Beach, Calif., said Bryant has a rare global appeal for marketers, but that the accusation could certainly hurt his image.
"This reminded me of Magic Johnson's AIDS announcement, knocked the wind out of everybody," Carter said.
History shows stars can overcome negative publicity.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis appeared all but finished as a celebrity endorser when he and two friends were charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men after the 2000 Super Bowl.
Five months later, the charges against Lewis were dropped. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstructing law enforcement and interfering with an investigation. Today, he makes millions from endorsement deals with Reebok, EA Sports and even the NFL, which fined him $250,000 after his arrest.
Jordan has been through gambling allegations, a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by a former lover (it was recently dismissed by a judge) and marital problems, yet his status as a pitchman remains strong.
Still, there are key differences between Lewis, Jordan and Bryant. Lewis, Williams said, "never had a great endorsement career and wound up with a deal or two, which is pretty amazing." Much of Jordan's bad publicity came toward the end of his career.
"But Kobe is only 24," Williams said. "It's pretty mind-boggling to think of what's at stake here."
Williams says Bryant probably makes between $10 million and $12 million a year in endorsement deals.
"He doesn't have every demographic, the way Jordan or Tiger does," Williams said. "But he has a lot of charisma. He's good looking. He's got a great smile. He's well-spoken. As athletes go, he comes across as being a pretty bright one."
Most of all, advertisers like Bryant because he's a winner.
A five-time All-Star who helped the Lakers win three straight NBA championships before the streak ended this year, Bryant was the youngest player to enter the NBA when he came in 1996 at age 18, straight from high school.
He has steadily gotten better. He averaged 30 points a game last season and has more than lived up to the hype he created when he skipped college to go pro.
"He's still a superstar," said DeCabia, whose outlook is less gloomy than Williams'. "Unless he's proven guilty, I still think he's a superstar and a super marketer for any client."
Thus far, Nike is avoiding comment. "All I can say is, we think Kobe's a great player and this is a legal matter," spokeswoman Celeste Alleyne said.
Sprite officials are taking the same stance.
While officials in Colorado sort out evidence and decide if Bryant should be charged, none of his endorsers is bailing out of their deals.
But Williams believes they must be nervous.
"They're conservative in nature and hate to see any kind of negative press for a spokesman of their product," he said. "I think they just take a wait-and-see attitude and see what does or doesn't develop."