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Bryant Is NBA's Most Marketable Again

Kobe Bryant
AP
Kobe Bryant

285 weeks.

That’s exactly how long it took Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to get to become the league’s most marketable player again. Sure, it’s a subjective ranking, but it’s harder to argue with a fourth, and Shaq-less, title in Kobe’s hands.

At the beginning of last year, I would have never thought that Bryant would surpass LeBron in the eyes of corporate America.

That was before I went to Beijing and saw how much more Bryant was loved than James.

That was before Nike decided to use Bryant to launch its Hyperdunk shoe (instead of LeBron) and before I saw how Nike was willing to use Kobe to push a groundbreaking low top.

That was before I witnessed Vitaminwater, a Coke brand - which let his contract expire after the sexual assault charges –- take him back.

And the number one metric is probably the jersey sales. He’ll finish the year No. 1 for the second time in three years and it’s hard to argue that it’s because the No. 24 is still new.

Yes, Kobe Bryant has completed a marketing comeback that no athlete in the history of sports marketing has pulled off.

To truly appreciate this, we must go back to the thoughts about Bryant’s marketability nearly six years ago, when he was charged with sexual assault. I could list hundreds of comments from pundits who said recovery to his former level of endorsements was impossible. Here’s a comment made on ESPNews shortly after the news broke:

“No matter what, if he’s found utterly and completely innocent, this will have been a September 11th-level of tragedy to his image and reputation. There is no full recovery…I cannot imagine companies wanting to be in long-term, expensive relationships with him no matter what happens.”

Levine Communications founder Michael Levine

Something like that was easy to say at the time. Bryant’s civil case was eventually settled and the criminal case was dropped. Deals with McDonald’s , Coke, Spalding and Nutella were not renewed. Nike stuck with Bryant, but put marketing of the Lakers guard on hold.

Then Bryant scored 81. Won the league MVP. And now, as I predicted in December, won a championship.

Last week, Forbes came out with their Celebrity 100, which ranks financial and media power. Bryant was number 10, just behind Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt and ahead of Will Smith, Britney Spears, Michael Jordan (No. 18) and LeBron James (at No. 19).

Whether every single decision maker in corporate America is ready to use Bryant or not isn’t the point. The point is that Bryant, once again, will have his choice of top brands to endorse.

Time to update those sports marketing history books.

Update: At the suggestion of my good friend and outstanding journalist Willie Weinbaum, I called Michael Levine to find out what he had to say today. While Levine still says that he thinks Kobe has some steps to take before he is universally embraced by corporate America, he says Bryant has "done a remarkable job to come from where he was to where he is today."

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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