Once upon a time, it seemed as if Kobe Bryant was in danger of giving up his place on the throne of NBA fame. He played on a middling Lakers team, was getting older, and saw young guns like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade improving at a rapid rate. Then the Lakers got Pau Gasol, Kobe won two more championships, and everyone found reasons to hate those young players. Yet time marches on regardless of accomplishments, and Kobe is getting up there in age at 33 years old. The Lakers aren't as strong a contender as they were several seasons ago, and the players who were supposed to overtake Kobe as global icons in the past are creeping closer once again.
They're not quite there, though, and so Bryant continues to be the league's highest-earning player. That's according to Forbes Magazine, at least, which released its annual list of the league's top one-percenters. Here's what staff writer Kurt Badenhausen had to say (via EOB):
Bryant's following has allowed him to amass an endorsement portfolio of global brands including Nike, Smart Car, Panini and Turkish Airlines that pay him $28 million annually. Factor in his league leading $25.2 million salary from the Lakers and Bryant is the NBA's top-earning athlete at $53.2 million.
Bryant's Lakers salary is $3 million greater than any other NBA player thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the NBA's maximum salary rules on individual players. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, 10-year veterans could sign deals for 35% of the salary cap which was $58 million last season. Yet players can sign deals worth 105% of their previous salary even if it exceeds the salary ceiling. [...]
The NBA's No. 2 earner is LeBron James of the Miami Heat at $49 million. James is the league's top endorser making an estimated $33 million annually through partnerships with Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, State Farm and Upper Deck. The James empire expanded in April when he became a minority owner in soccer club Liverpool after a marketing agreement with Liverpool's owner, Fenway Sports Group. FSG and LRMR, James' own marketing company, will oversee future partnerships for the two-time NBA MVP.
What these numbers prove is that no player in the league has leveraged his global popularity quite like Kobe. He's popular in many countries, and he uses that to his advantage with a variety of endorsements. LeBron is on his way to doing the same, but he doesn't yet have quite the reach. In part, that's because he hasn't won the championships that turn someone from a great player into a legend. But it goes deeper than that: Bryant has figured out how to make a lot of money over time.
The other very interesting thing about this list is what happens outside of the top three or four earners. While guys like Bryant, James and Dwight Howard are regulars in national advertising campaigns, guys like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett make the list despite starring in no major ads. The takeaway is that there aren't many spots for players to make major endorsements. Instead, the top few stars eat up most of those opportunities.
Salaries, then, account for the vast majority of player earnings. That point helps stress just how much was at stake during this summer's collective bargaining talks. For most of these guys, there's no way to make up the money they lost. Everyone will live comfortably, of course, but it's still a drop in salary. Local supermarket ads just aren't going to make up the difference.