Few NBA players, or professional athletes for that matter, who are known simply by one name. Jordan, Shaq, Magic, Tiger, Ali, and Pele are all examples of iconic athletes with this type of untouchable aura surrounding them. All obtained their iconic status through their record-breaking feats and jaw-dropping plays that made viewers jump to their feet and applaud.
Perhaps no one has transformed his name into a brand better than Michael Jordan. Across the world, it is difficult to find someone who has not at least heard of Jordan. Even people who know nothing about sports are familiar with the Jordan name, which is a tribute to the business moves and smart decisions that he has made even after retirement.
Another one of the greatest shooting guards in NBA history and someone who is often in the conversation with Jordan as one of the greatest basketball players ever has also curated a similar global brand presence. As someone who is also oftentimes referred to by one name, Kobe Bryant will be retiring at the end of the 2015-2016 season following an incredible 20 years in the NBA.
After playing under the microscope of comparison to Jordan for the length of his NBA career, will Bryant’s legacy and influence be able to exceed and surpass that of Jordan’s?
Throughout his career, Bryant had numerous accomplishments including leading the Los Angeles Lakers in every statistical category, winning the 2008 MVP award, becoming the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer, and leading his teams to five NBA championships. These have led to Bryant earning over $328 million throughout his career. In comparison, even after winning the MVP award five times and six NBA championships, Jordan only earned about $94 million during his career. Once he officially retired, though, his yearly earnings have skyrocketed to almost $100 million in 2015. Currently, Bryant only earns about $20 million per year from advertisements.
This is the area in which Bryant seeks to improve. His career statistics and on-court accomplishments speak for themselves, but legacies are not solely formed on the basketball court. Jordan’s “brand,” meaning the reputation and recognition of his name, only grew in popularity after his retirement, partially due to his partnership with Nike. His Jordan shoes and apparel have been the main key to developing the intense “cult-like” following that chases Jordan around wherever he goes.
For Bryant, this is one of the main areas in which he needs to improve his brand post-NBA career. Jordan has a “jumpman” logo that is on all of his clothing and allows everyone to see that an article of clothing is from Nike’s Jordan line. Bryant, on the other hand, possesses no such recognizable logo, even though he is a part of the Nike family, as well. Developing a more identifiable logo will allow Bryant to foray into clothes as well as shoes and increase his presence in the fashion industry, both of which have helped Jordan immensely.
Another key for Bryant will be to continue to improve his public image. After being involved in an alleged sexual assault case in 2003, Bryant lost a few of his sponsors, like McDonald’s, and it has been an uphill battle for him and his publicity team ever since that time. He still feels the harsh judgment from the public’s eye regarding the alleged event and the repercussions have not been helpful for his overall brand. It does nothing to improve the situation that Bryant is also known as a fierce competitor who has, at times, alienated many teammates, coaches and even fans. Jordan was known as just a fierce competitor, if not more than Bryant, yet he still maintained a sort of likability and openness that Bryant has never quite managed. Becoming more likable and charming, especially around the media, will be another challenge for Bryant, but one that could definitely be lucrative if he succeeds in repairing his image in the eyes of the general public.
In terms of international publicity, Bryant might even be surpassing Jordan. Bryant has long cultivated an extensive relationship with the country of China after realizing the great potential and opportunity in a market that is continuously growing to love the game of basketball. Recently, Bryant has partnered with the retail company Alibaba Group to release special Bryant-branded products from toys and apparel to videos and social media. Bryant has also agreed to a deal with a Turkish Airlines and has appeared in commercial spots with Spanish soccer star Lionel Messi. In the long run, this international focus could aid Bryant to potentially match Jordan’s current earnings or at least improve from the $20 million threshold at which he currently sits.
Last year, Bryant formed his own company, Kobe Inc., and has built a team of representatives and business people who will aid him in evaluating business decisions and developing his brand.
“We want to own and help grow brands and ideas that challenge and redefine the sports industry while inspiring,” Bryant said in an interview with ESPN. “If it doesn’t have the limbs of the sports industry, which I understand extremely well, then I probably won’t touch it.”
This mindset will undoubtedly lead Kobe to pursue athletic apparel and shoes, similar to Jordan. After spending his entire career compared to Jordan, the comparison between the two men looks to continue, even after their professional careers have been completed. Bryant still has a long ways to go, though, before catching up to the man synonymous with the number 23.
Again, the question remains.
Will he be able to create a brand as popular as Jordan’s? Many analysts say no. But if he attacks this next chapter of life with the same intensity he used over the course of his 20 year basketball career, it would be difficult to count him out.