With his captivating smile and wholesomely hip persona that appeals to teens on the playground and millionaires in the front row, Kobe Bryant has established himself as one of the top marketable athletes of his era.
That image, however, is in jeopardy 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 -- for now and the future.
It's an untimely blow for the Los Angeles Lakers' guard, who just last month signed a multimillion-dollar sneaker deal with Nike to go with contracts he already has with Sprite, McDonald's and Spalding.
"They haven't charged him yet and people are already tearing down his personality," media buyer Tom DeCabia said.
Bryant has yet to make a public statement. His attorney, Pamela Mackey, says he is innocent and expects to be exonerated.
In a worst-case scenario, Bryant could lose up to US$150 million in potential earnings, estimates Bob Williams of Burns Sports and Celebrities Inc. 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, California, 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.
"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 US$10 million and US$12 million a year in endorsement deals. If he plays until age 40, as Jordan did, it could total more than US$150 million in lost revenue should his stock plummet.
"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 championships, Bryant was the youngest player to enter the NBA when he came into the league in 1996 straight from high school at age 18. 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.''