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King James rules the NBA's jersey-sale world

Thursday, 3 Oct 2013 | 10:46 AM ET
LeBron James
Getty Images
LeBron James

They don't call NBA superstar LeBron James "King James" for nothing. The Miami Heat forward boasted the top-selling jersey worldwide during the NBA's 2012-13 season.

For the first time, the $5.5 billion sports league tracked best-selling jersey sales on a global rather than regional basis. The No. 6 jersey of James ranked No. 1 worldwide, according to the league, which is releasing the survey to coincide with Saturday's tipoff of NBA Global Games 2013.

(Read more: LeBron James designs $51,500 watch)

Despite missing the entire season with a knee injury, Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls had the second best-selling jersey worldwide. Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers ranked No. 3. Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and James' Heat teammate, Dwyane Wade, rounded out the Top 5.

Derrick Rose
Getty Images
Derrick Rose

The rest of the Top 10: Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks (No. 6); Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers, who's since joined the Houston Rockets (No. 7); Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets (No. 8); Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers (No. 9); and Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics (No. 10). The lists are based on global retail/online sales of NBA jerseys made by Adidas, the league's official outfitter.

The 28-year old James, who led Miami to its second straight NBA title this spring, also topped U.S. jersey sales for the 2012-13 season. The rest of the U.S. Top 5 in order: Rose, Bryant, Durant and Anthony.

In November, 2012, James overtook Rose to lead the U.S. in jersey sales for the first time since 2011. Those rankings were based on combined sales at the NBA Store on Fifth Avenue and NBAStore.com, not Adidas volume, from April through November 2012. By April 2013, however, Anthony surpassed James to become the first Knick to lead the league in jersey sales since the survey was first conducted for the 2001-02 season. James slipped to second.

Kobe Bryant
Getty Images
Kobe Bryant

Outside the U.S. market, the Lakers' Bryant had the top-selling international jersey for the 2011-12 season. Rose ranked second and James third. The four-time NBA MVP's Adidas jerseys currently sell from a low of $23.99 to a high of $299.95 at NBAShop.com.

The NBA, MLB and NHL are the most global of the big U.S. pro sports leagues. The best-selling jersey lists illustrates the power of global athletic companies to influence spending choices of consumers in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

(Read more: National Hockey League looks poised for major breakout)

The images of James and Bryant are marketed globally by Nike. Rose serves as the advertising face of Adidas' basketball business. How else can you explain the injured Rose beating out the healthy James to score the best-selling jersey in Europe, China and Latin America this past season—despite not playing a single game?

Top 15 Selling Jerseys Worldwide for the 2012-13 season:

Rank Athlete Team
1. LeBron James Miami Heat
2. Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls
3. Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers
4. Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Dwyane Wade Miami Heat
6. Carmelo Anthony New York Knicks
7. Dwight Howard Los Angeles Lakers*
8. Deron Williams Brooklyn Nets
9. Blake Griffin Los Angeles Clippers
10. Rajon Rondo Boston Celtics
11. Steve Nash Los Angeles Lakers
12. Chris Paul Los Angeles Clippers
13. Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder
14. Kevin Garnett Boston Celtics*
15. Joe Johnson Brooklyn Nets
Source: NBA

The title of world's best-selling jersey represents something of an image comeback for James, who'll earn $57.6 million this year from salary and endorsements deals with the Swoosh, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Samsung, according to Forbes. Bryant is the NBA's highest-paid player, earning $59.8 million in salary/endorsements this year, according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.

Back in 2010, the most sought-after free agent in NBA history nearly destroyed his brand by using a nationally televised ESPN TV special dubbed "The Decision" to reveal he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the bright lights of South Beach.

James, an Ohio native, was denounced as a money-grubbing traitor in his blue collar home state. Cavalier fans burned his jersey on national TV, an act that stunned James. Madison Avenue, which viewed the Chosen One as the next Michael Jordan, turned to other endorsers rather than hiring America's new villain.

(Read more: NFL's Jaguars hope free beer will fill stadium)

But winning is the great deodorant in sports. Sports leagues, advertisers and agencies use "Q Scores" to determine an athletic endorser's appeal with the public.

Among sports fans, James' Q scores are back up to 25 percent from a low of 16 percent after the Decision, said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company. But he's not all the way back yet. Before that TV disaster, 34 percent, of respondents said he was one of their favorite sports personalities. Afterward, his negative perceptions went through the roof.

"He's gradually regaining his credibility with sports fans," said Schafer. "It will continue as long as he doesn't make any more stupid 'Decisions.'"

(Read more: Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to retire)

The NBA tips off its 2013-14 season on Oct. 29, with James and the Heat hosting Rose's Bulls.

—By Michael McCarthy, Special to CNBC.com. McCarthy covers Sports Business for Advertising Age in New York. He's been a sportswriter for USA TODAY, Newsday, NFL and SportsBizUSA. Follow him on Twitter @MMcCarthyREV.

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