LeBron James has said in the past that he is tired of being compared to Michael Jordan, but the new deal he signed on Monday means that he may well be seen as stepping into Jordan’s shoes, or more specifically, his Air Jordans.
James has just signed a lifetime deal with Nike, which will potentially earn the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar more than $60m (£40m) a year. Like Jordan, James has been working with the company since his youth, signing his first $90m deal with them when he was just out of high school after a bidding war between Nike, Adidas and Reebok.
“I’m just grateful that Nike and [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight and everyone over there just believed in a skinny 18-year-old kid from Akron, Ohio,” James told reporters on Monday.
So what does a contract for life involve and who gets them? Karl Lagerfeld is said to be so important to Chanel that he has one with the label. Ditto Annie Leibovitz, whose contract with Vanity Fair publisher Condé Nast is supposedly worth $5m a year. Jordan, who first signed a deal in 1984, has been working successfully with Nike for 12 years since his retirement. His Air Jordan line sold $2.5bn worth of shoes in 2012, and Jordan is thought to earn $100m a year thanks to the range. David Beckham, meanwhile, will make more than $160m from the lifetime contract with Adidas that he signed in 2003.
David Abrutyn, an executive vice president at the media marketing agency Bruin Sports Capital, says that the deal reflects James’s importance to the company. “They are very purposefully defining that they have done a lifetime deal with LeBron and I think that speaks volumes about what he means for their business,” he says. “I’m sure if you talked to the people at Nike they would tell you that of the thousands of athletes they represent, more than a few of them have asked for a lifetime deal.” He says that it is likely to be Nike’s biggest deal since its “de facto” lifetime contract with Jordan.
The world of sponsorship hasn’t always been plain sailing for Nike, whose shareholders were reported to have lost tens of millions of dollars after standing by Tiger Woods during his infidelity scandal. Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius, who lost their Nike sponsorship in 2012 and 2013 respectively, have also caused headaches for the company.
Despite this, Abrutyn thinks that Nike envisages this deal being successful, perhaps even to the grave. “As with Jordan, what you’re seeing here is a reflection of the business that LeBron helped drive,” he says. In other words, nice work if you can get it.
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