LeBron James: First Athlete Billionaire?
December 5, 2006 7:05pm CST
SAPPORO, JAPAN - Just inside room 748 at the Renaissance Hotel, two mannequins guarded the door and marble hallway like Nike sentinels. Dressed head-to-toe in Team USA basketball garb -- a valuable association Nike has paid millions to exploit -- on their feet were LeBron James' two newest shoe designs. The walls were plastered with James photos, model action shots, studio shots and high-fashion glamour shots. In front of gold curtains and a giant rack of Nike basketballs, the man himself lounged on a black leather couch, his back resting against a throw pillow with his picture on it. James listened intently to questions in broken English. His answers instantly were translated into a microphone and beamed to more than a dozen reporters' earphones as flashbulbs popped endlessly. After a while, the Chinese media were halted and ushered out by bilingual Nike public relations staff members. James stepped into another room in the suite, past the black glass bar, to hang out with friend and teammate Chris Paul while Japanese journalists were hustled in for their face time. It might seem routine or inconsequential, another bland press conference on a gloomy Monday afternoon, but this was billion-dollar business. James might indeed be in Asia to help Team USA win the 2006 FIBA World Championship without salary, but it is all part of a giant marketing scheme with massive stakes. Whether he'll make it or not, James has set the goal of becoming the world's first athlete billionaire. Those ambitious plans go well beyond the saturated U.S. market. They aim to tap the massive growth potential for basketball in all of Asia, where millions of teenagers are awakening to basketball in an exploding marketplace. Athletic shoe and apparel retailers are growing in China. The two major shoe companies, Nike and the newly merged adidas-Reebok, are battling in the massive market, and James smells opportunity. ``I say all the time, and I tell my friends and teammates, that you have to go global,'' James said. ``In basketball and business.'' It is more than just talk. James and his new company, LRMR Marketing, have made China and Japan huge targets. As they outlined at a seminar last month in Akron, James has a strategy to increase his exposure in Asia by Aug. 8, 2008, the opening of the Beijing Olympics. That's why it was a lock that he would be playing for Team USA this summer in the world championship. Additionally, the Cavaliers are in talks to open the NBA season next year playing in China, and he's planning on being back in 2008 for the Olympics. ``It is only going to help my business,'' James said. ``Once I knew the world games were going to be in Japan, I knew I was going to be on board.'' There is serious competition, especially from Reebok pitchman and Chinese national hero Yao Ming and adidas' top endorser, Tracy McGrady. But James is working on it, even taking Mandarin Chinese lessons with the hope of being able to conduct interviews by 2008. The interview session Monday came on an afternoon when Team USA was off and no media access was granted to players. Nike organized the James press conferences to make sure the large Asian media contingent could get exclusive access when there were no games or other interviews to distract them. Wow, that sounds like ambition, but I don't think it's possible. LeBron James is huge, but so is Kobe and D-Wade, and many other NBA players.