LOS ANGELES – With a new $136 million NBA contract, Kobe Bryant (search) will be making jump shots for years to come — provided, of course, he stays out of prison. Whether he will ever hoist a can of Sprite in front of a camera again is another question altogether.
"If it's like O.J., he'll never have another endorsement contract again," said Bob Williams of Burns Sports and Celebrities Inc., a sports marketing agency.
The Los Angeles Lakers (search) star is accused of raping a 19-year-old woman last year in Colorado. Bryant, 26, has claimed the sex was consensual. Jury selection in the trial began Friday.
If convicted, he could face years in prison. If he is exonerated or resolves the case without a trial, Bryant still must deal with a lawsuit by his accuser.
The case of former Hertz spokesman O.J. Simpson (search) could be instructive. Though Simpson was acquitted of killing his wife and a friend of hers, he was widely believed to have gotten away with murder, and he never regained his marketing power.
So far, Bryant has suffered comparatively little financial pain.
McDonald's and Nutella decided not to renew their deals with him after his arrest last year. Williams estimated Bryant has lost $4 million to $6 million in endorsement contracts.
But in June, Forbes.com ranked him as the 10th highest-paid celebrity of 2004, with earnings of $26.1 million from June 2003 to June 2004 in salary, bonuses, prize money, appearance fees and endorsements. Endorsements accounted for half the total.
In addition to his new seven-year contract to play basketball, he has a five-year, $45 million deal with Nike signed days before the allegations surfaced, though he has not appeared in the shoe maker's commercials since then. His contract with Coca-Cola, the maker of Sprite, runs through next year.
Spokesmen for Coke and Nike would not comment on Bryant's future with the two companies, but Nike was reportedly trying to acquire rights to sell replicas of his high school jersey.
Because of the gravity of the rape charge, marketers will stay away even if Bryant is acquitted, predicted Peter Land, general manager of sports and entertainment for the Edelman public relations company.
And whatever the trial's outcome, fans now know that their squeaky-clean hero committed adultery.
"Someone's reputation is priceless," Land said, and there are hundreds of other celebrities and athletes companies can use to pitch products. "If I was on the marketing side, I would say, `Why Kobe?' And I don't really have a great answer."
Calls to Bryant's representatives were not immediately returned.
Other athletes with nice-guy reputions have weathered potential disasters. Last year, a judge threw out a lawsuit against Michael Jordan by a former lover. In the Forbes rankings, he was still one of this year's highest-paid athletes, in part because of his Jordan line of Nike shoes. In 1991, Magic Johnson disclosed that he was infected with the AIDS virus. He remains popular with the public, if not with advertisers.
Danny Castro, a 39-year-old drywall installer from El Cajon, thinks the times have made Bryant's adultery no big deal.
"It's the society we're in now," he said. "Everyone's so desensitized."
What is unlikely to be affected is the sale of Bryant memorabilia. Thousands of jerseys, trading cards and other collectibles continue to be offered on eBay. Such sales reflect notoriety and collectibility, not moral judgments.
At All Star Collectibles at Universal CityWalk, clerks said Kobe Bryant jerseys, children's backpacks and a raft of other merchandise fly off the shelves, bought by fans visiting from as far away as Japan. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday that Nike was in talks with Bryant's former high school to get rights to sell replicas of his school jersey.
Sports equipment and clothing companies "have a higher tolerance for athlete indiscretions than most of corporate America" and are less likely to abandon Bryant, said David Carter of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group.
"Because many of their consumers don't seemed to be as fazed or negatively influenced by Kobe's ordeal, they may not shy off buying those brands," he said. "Many of these consumers appear to be as concerned with a player's skill on the court and his team's winning percentage as they are his off-the-court behavior."
In the end, Kobe the Product may depend most on how he performs as as Kobe the NBA Star, said Hamidou Kaborge, 34, from the San Francisco Bay-area community of Bay Point, after visiting the Team LA sportswear shop at Universal CityWalk.
"If he continues to play well," Kaborge said, "people will forgive."