World: Stuart Elliott in America

Kobe, or not Kobe: that, with apologies to the Bard, is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind of advertisers that would hire Kobe Bryant as an endorser to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles that signing him undoubtedly would cause.

Ay, there's the rub. Or not, assuming no maker of rub, or any product, wants its brand associated with Bryant so soon after criminal sexual assault charges against the LA Lakers basketball star were dismissed.

In July 2003, when the rape charges were first brought against Bryant by a young Colorado woman, he was one of Madison Avenue's biggest endorsers, earning close to $100 million under multiyear contracts from marketers including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike, Spalding and even Ferrero USA, for Nutella chocolate spread. His clean-cut image, in marked contrast to the thuggish personas of many American basketball players, earned him attention other athletes would kill for.

Sorry, bad choice of words.

Now, even with the sensational headlines fading, and no chance of Bryant being brought to trial, he is, to put it politely, spoiled goods. "Sports marketing experts agree that it will take years, if ever, for him to repair his image enough to become a marketable pitchman again," Advertising Age concluded in a special post-mortem.

One reason for that verdict is what Bryant's sponsors did once he got in trouble, showing him about as much support as Michael Moore does for President Bush.

McDonald's let his estimated $20 million contract lapse when it expired last year, and so did Ferrero USA, the latter going so far as to remove pictures of Bryant from Nutella labels as soon as the publicity about the case started, er, um, spreading.

Companies, such as Coca-Cola, that kept Bryant under contract made sure he was nowhere to be seen in their advertising. Coca-Cola even replaced Bryant in a high-profile campaign for Sprite with a younger NBA player, the rookie LeBron James.

Nike, however, behaved a bit differently, perhaps to reflect its edgier brand character. Shortly before the charges were dismissed, when it appeared Bryant was still going to trial, word got out that the company - which signed a five-year, $45 million agreement with him only days before the rape allegations became public - was negotiating with his former high school in Philadelphia to sell a line of replica T-shirts, jackets, jerseys and other clothing, which would bear the logo of the basketball team for which Bryant played and its nickname, the Aces.

But after parents and alumni quickly flooded the school district with complaints, the discussions were "referred to a policy committee" - the educational equivalent of an agency supremo "leaving to pursue other interests".

Don't feel bad for Bryant, who'll have to try living off the proceeds of his new $136 million, seven-year contract with the Lakers. Don't feel bad for the advertisers, either, which are hardly dependent on him to peddle their wares. Indeed, the sports marketing landscape is changing, with far less interest in athletes who lack a proven track record of admirable, long-term performance off, as well as on, the field.

Bryant might do well to read the soliloquy whose beginning is spoofed above, for it ends thus: "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered."

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