Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s two decades in the NBA may be drawing to a close, but the 37-year-old’s personal brand is well-positioned for life after pro basketball. With several business ventures already in the works and the benefit of global name recognition, Bryant has the potential to join the likes of Michael Jordan and fellow Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson among players who have flourished after hanging up their basketball jerseys.
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Bryant’s formal announcement Sunday of his decision to retire after the 2015-16 season stirred memories of a dominant career that included five NBA championships and a Most Valuable Player award. But the longtime Laker also has proven to be a skilled businessman during his 20 years in the public spotlight, with a global following that stretches from Los Angeles to China – and everywhere in between.
“He’s probably one of a dozen athletes who you could walk down a street in Brooklyn and Beijing and if you mentioned his name, everybody knows who he is,” said Joe Favorito, a longtime sports marketing professional and instructor at Columbia University in New York City. “That’s something that’s amazingly powerful. Whether its sports or entertainment or politics, there’s very few people that can command that – at a relatively young age, too.”
Bryant parlayed endorsement deals with Nike Inc. (NKE), Chinese tech company Lenovo, Swiss watchmaker Hublot and Italian memorabilia company Panini into $26 million in off-court earnings in 2015 alone, according to Forbes. And he’s an equity investor in the sports drink BodyArmor through his eponymous company, Kobe Inc., which he founded in 2013.
Aside from the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s made from endorsements, Bryant has also been the NBA’s highest-paid player since 2009. He’s earning a salary of $25 million in his final NBA season, with a total of more than $300 million in salary over the course of his career.
The future Hall of Famer’s willingness to embrace a global audience could open up a variety of business opportunities overseas, according to Bob Dorfman, a sports branding expert and Executive Creative Director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. Bryant speaks fluent Italian and has an extensive history of partnering with international brands, including Turkish Airlines and Alibaba (BABA), the leading online marketplace in China. He’s also made annual trips to China as a global ambassador for Nike, developing a massive fan base there in the process.
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“Internationally, he’s one of the best known players,” said Dorfman. “I could certainly see him becoming more of an international businessman.”
Bryant could also pursue a career in the media, where many former athletes, including former Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal and basketball great Charles Barkley, have flourished. There will be no shortage of opportunities in that regard, given Bryant’s public stature.
“He could certainly go into broadcasting if he wanted to,” said Dorfman. “He’s articulate. He’s smart in terms of the game.”
Bryant’s NBA career wasn’t without its blemishes. He has had contentious public relationships with several former Lakers teammates, including O’Neal, and he lost several corporate sponsors after allegations of sexual assault surfaced in 2003.
But Bryant’s brand has endured, and experts say it will continue to do so after his retirement from competition.
“I think it’s kind of a ‘benevolent dictator’ type of thing at this point,” said Favorito, regarding how the public perceives Bryant. “The feuds with Shaq, the stuff that happened with his personal life, that’s all been passed along. There’s very little reticent damage or baggage that goes with Kobe Bryant.”