LeBron leads NBA’s endorsement all-stars

The Miami Heat are two wins away from an NBA Championship after holding off the Dallas Mavericks Sunday night 88-86. Two more wins and LeBron James(notes) will take another step in his rehab from last summer’s controversial TV special “The Decision” announcing his move to the Heat.

James signed with Miami looking to establish a dynasty that would win multiple NBA titles (he boldly said he is not stopping at seven). Winning championships is the only way to establish his place as one of the all-time greats. It is also the best way to boost his bank account. “Winning and succeeding in basketball drives all business,” James told Forbes last month for a profile that was part of our Celebrity 100 issue.

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Slideshow: The world’s highest-paid athletes

Business for James is booming even before an NBA title. Kobe Bryant(notes) commands the top playing salary in the NBA at $24.8 million, but James earns the most off-the-court with $34 million over the past 12-months through endorsements and royalty deals. Nike is James’ biggest deal worth more than $10 million annually. He also counts Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, State Farm and Upper Deck as partners.

Business has only improved for James since he moved to the Heat. No sponsors have dropped him as they did with Tiger Woods when he faced a media firestorm. James added a watch deal with Audemars Piguet to his endorsement portfolio in April. His jersey was the NBA’s best seller this season and his latest Nike shoe is the No. 1 basketball sneaker on the market.

As part of our annual look at the world’s 50 highest-paid athletes we talk to dozens of player agents, marketing experts and company executives to gauge what sponsorship deals are in place and what they are worth. Below are our estimates for the top NBA players in regards to endorsement earnings in the 12 months ending May 1.

LeBron James of the Miami Heat dribbles during Game 3 of the NBA Finals at the AmericanAirlines Center in Dallas, Texas, on June 5, 2011.
(Getty Images)

Each of these players was among our 50 top-earning athletes except Kevin Durant(notes) and Shaquille O’Neal(notes) who didn’t make the cut because their 2010-11 playing salaries kept their total incomes under the $18.8 million cutoff (Durant will make the cut next year when his $85 million contract extension with the Thunder begins – assuming there is an NBA season).

For all of the players below, their shoe/apparel deal is by far their biggest endorsement. This is often the case with elite soccer and tennis players as well. The most marketable players in these three sports can command $6-7 million annually in a shoe/apparel deal or much more in the case of a few like James, Bryant, David Beckham and Roger Federer.

The difference between the athletes above and say Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning who are at the top of the marketing food chain in their respective sports is that they have the ability to move a significant amount of product off the shelves. Yet there is a very limited market for baseball and football cleats. Baseball and to a greater extent football also lack global appeal limiting what Nike and Reebok can do with a Jeter or Manning outside the U.S. A $1 million a year shoe and apparel is a massive deal for a football or baseball star and there are only a handful out there.

Below are the top earners in the NBA off-the-court and our estimates on what they made this season through all endorsement deals.

Player/total endorsement income/shoe sponsor

LeBron James: $34 million (Nike)
Kobe Bryant: $28 million (Nike)
Dwyane Wade(notes): $12 million (Jordan/Nike)
Dwight Howard(notes): $11 million (Adidas)
Yao Ming(notes): $10 million (Reebok)
Shaquille O’Neal: $10 million (Dunkman/Li Ning)
Kevin Durant: $9 million (Nike)
Carmelo Anthony(notes): $8 million (Jordan/Nike)
Amar’e Stoudemire(notes): $8 million (Nike-expiring this summer)

Slideshow: The world’s highest-paid athletes


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Updated Monday, Jun 6, 2011