LeBron James entered the NBA in 2003 with almost impossible expectations. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover the prior year as a high school junior with the tagline: “The Chosen One.” Nike inked him to a seven-year, $90 million deal while he was still in high school. It was the biggest endorsement deal ever for a player before his first game. Agreements with Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes and Upper Deck followed as a rookie.
Fifteen years later, James has somehow exceeded expectations both on and off the court. He’s racked up four NBA MVP Awards and seven straight trips to the NBA Finals. His 14 All-Star Game starts are one short of Kobe Bryant’s record.
James is on the Mount Rushmore of the most influential and popular active athletes on the planet. His 41 million Facebook followers is second behind only Cristiano Ronaldo among athletes. He sells more of his signature shoes for Nike than any other active athlete. James has been a slam dunk for marketers. The result: James’ $52 million in earnings off the court is tops among NBA players and second behind only Roger Federer among athletes across all sports.
King James’ current endorsement partners are Nike, Coca-Cola (Sprite), Beats By Dre, Nike, Kia Motor, Intel and Blaze Pizza. He is also a burgeoning entertainment and media mogul through his SpringHill Entertainment production company, as well as Uninterrupted, a multimedia platform for athletes. SpringHill announced this week plans for a remake of the early 1990s hit movie “House Party” that starred Kid ‘n Play.
James had impeccable timing with his early investment in Blaze, as well as his role as a franchisee and endorser. He is part of an investment group with 17 Blaze franchises in Chicago and South Florida, with another seven in development. Blaze’s meteoric growth from two outlets to 200 in four years made it the fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.
NBA All-Star weekend is a global showcase for the league’s biggest stars. This year’s game in the entertainment capital of the world is drawing even more buzz with captain-drafted teams and ticket prices more than three times the level of last year’s game in New Orleans. Tip-off from the Staples Center is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET on TNT, which is the home of the game for the 16th straight year.
The game also presents an opportunity for marketers to highlight players who shill for their brands and get paid handsomely in return. Verizon, State Farm, JBL and Mountain Dew are all sponsoring televised NBA events over the weekend and have NBA stars on their endorsement rosters. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour will mark the weekend with new releases of signature shoes for their athletes.
Elite NBA players have become global icons thanks to the sport touching every corner of the planet and shoe companies elevating these players to supermen in their marketing campaigns. NBA shoe deals are the biggest endorsement contracts across all sports and can top $30 million a year in the case of James.
The NBA’s 10 biggest endorsement stars will generate a combined $234 million off the court this year by Forbes’ count. There is a staggering gap between the NBA and the other three major U.S. sports leagues. Football’s 10 biggest endorsers will generate an estimated $90 million, while baseball ($25 million) and hockey ($20 million) aren’t in the same galaxy. European soccer stars are the only reasonable comparison, but the top 10 in soccer will still “only” earn around $135 million.
There are 10 NBA players who will earn more than $12 million off the court this season, primarily thru endorsement deals but also including licensing, royalties, appearances and media deals. Thirty-six-year-old Dwyane Wade is the only top endorser who will not be playing in the All-Star Game on Sunday. Here is a look at those 10 and some of their major endorsement partners.
LeBron James: $52 million
Major partners: Nike, Coca-Cola (Sprite), Beats By Dre, Kia Motor, Intel, Blaze Pizza
James walked away from a $15 million McDonald’s endorsement deal in 2015 to focus on Blaze.
Stephen Curry: $42 million
Major partners: Under Armour, Chase, Vivo, eHi, Nissan/Infiniti, Brita, Bubble, JBL
Nike chose not to match Under Armour’s offer to Curry in 2013. UA and Curry extended their deal in 2015 after Curry’s first of two MVP Awards. Curry will net at least $15 million from Under Armour this year.
Kevin Durant: $33 million
Major partners: Nike, Beats, American Family Insurance, Alaska Airlines, Panini
Durant’s media company, Thiry Five Media, partnered with YouTube this year to help athletes create their own YouTube channels.
James Harden: $20 million
Major partners: Adidas, Electronic Arts, State Farm, BBVA Compass, New Era, Beats by Dre, Trolli, Foot Locker
The leading MVP candidate this season is the cover athlete in EA’s NBA Live 18 video game.
Russell Westbrook: $19 million
Major partners: Nike/Jordan, Mountain Dew, True Religion, Six Star, Samsung, Barneys, Westbrook Frames
Nike’s Jordan Brand rewarded the NBA MVP with a blockbuster 10-year contract extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Westbrook will net eight-figures from the pact this season.
Kyrie Irving: $14 million
Major partners: Nike/Jordan, PepsiCo, Foot Locker, Panini, PSD, Skullcandy
Uncle Drew started as a Pepsi-funded web series five years ago with Irving dressed up as an old man who surprises playground ballers with his moves. Next up: an Uncle Drew feature film to be released in June, starring Irving, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Weber, Nate Robinson and Lisa Leslie.
Damian Lillard: $14 million
Major partners: Adidas, Spalding, Foot Locker, PowerAde, JBL, Moda Health, Panini
Adidas released its fourth signature shoe for Lillard in October. Adidas was the only one of the top four performance basketball shoe brands to increase sales in 2017, according to NPD Group.
Dwyane Wade: $14 million
Major partners: Li-Ning, Gatorade, Hublot, Mission Athletecare, The Tie Bar, Stance, Sandals Resorts, Pahlmeyer Winery, Panini, New Era
Wade and Facebook released a docu-series at the end of 2017 that examined Wade’s life off the court. Wade was the face of the Jordan Brand among active players before he signed on with China’s Li-Ning in 2012.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: $13 million
Major partners: Nike, BMO Harris Bank, Tissot, Kronos Foods, AEGEAN Airlines
The Greek Freak’s previous Nike deal paid roughly $20,000 annually, while his new pact signed before the 2017-18 season will pay an estimated $9 million in the first year with more to come when Nike releases Antetokounmpo’s first signature shoe in 2019.
Klay Thompson: $13 million
Major partners: Anta, Rastaclat, Stance Socks, BodyArmor, Fanatics, Opus Bank
Thompson is the third Golden State Warrior among the top ten endorsers. He signed a 10-year extension to his Anta shoe deal last summer.