The best player of his generation and the world's biggest basketball apparel and shoe manufacturer will be together for a good long while. LeBron James and Nike confirmed reports Monday that the sides have agreed to a lifetime contract, extending a relationship that began before his first NBA season in 2003. Details of the agreement are scant, but it is believed to be the first official lifetime agreement in the history of Nike.
"I'm very humble, man," James said Monday after practice with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "It's been an unbelievable time for myself and my family, and I'm just grateful that Nike and Phil Knight, and everyone over there just believed in a skinny 18-year-old kid from Akron, Ohio, and I'm happy to be a part of such a great company." [...]
"We can confirm that we have agreed to a lifetime relationship with LeBron that provides significant value to our business, brand and shareholders," Nike said in a statement emailed to the AP. "We have already built a strong LeBron business over the past 12 years, and we see the potential for this to continue to grow throughout his playing career and beyond." [...]
As for his business association with Nike once he's done playing, James said he has had "a conversation" about branching off into his own brand — like Michael Jordan — under the company's umbrella.
"We'll see when we get to that point," said James, who has signed three contracts with Nike. "If it makes sense for both parties, then we'll do it. If not, then we won't. We've done a great job of building my brand to this point. We want to just continue it. If it makes sense for us to have a 'Team LeBron,' or whatever the name will be, we'll take a look at it and we'll go from there. It's a partnership between us. It's not an endorsement deal. It's a partnership where we always come together and figure out the best way possible for both brands to be successful."
Without details, the idea here would seem to be that James will become a figure similar to Jordan, whose Air Jordans continue to be the most popular and talked-about shoes offered by Nike well into his retirement. If LeBron does get a standalone situation similar to Jordan Brand, he could become both a peer and successor to His Airness. Jordan does not have an official lifetime deal with Nike, but the new James contract would seem to formalize the same sort of agreement. After so many years working together, it's hard to imagine Nike and LeBron splitting up.
The deal adds to LeBron's ever-growing list of business interests, which includes significant stakes in restaurant chains and a reported $30 million payout from the equity he owned in Beats by Dre headphones prior to its sale to Apple. The Cavaliers superstar also continues to be involved in various charitable causes and would presume to seek a public presence after his playing career is over. Perhaps he'll even join Jordan as players-turned-owners.
If Jordan is the most available point of comparison, then it's worth questioning if James can match his popularity enough to reach the same heights as a global icon. While there is now little debate as to LeBron's standing among the NBA greats of his era, he still has many detractors and does not hold anything close to Jordan's reputation as a born winner capable of reaching championships by sheer force of will. To put it another way, Jordan is essentially a mythic figure in the sport. Retirement could place LeBron in that same space, but for now he's all too fallible.
Yet these issues can always be resolved in the future via more effective marketing plans. For now, the big takeaway from this news is that LeBron and Nike will keep selling shoes, shirts, and everything else that goes into their brand for the foreseeable future. Look out for their performance-fabric neckties in 2035.
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