No one has scored more points than Kevin Durant over the past three National Basketball Association seasons. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward may be about to roll up endorsement riches as well.
The 23-year-old Durant gives companies a humble and refreshing alternative to LeBron James, who announced his move to Miami from Cleveland in 2010 by saying “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” sports marketers say. The day before James’s one-hour television special to disclose his choice, Durant announced his $85 million extension with the Thunder with little fanfare.
“Extension for 5 more years with the Thunder,” he posted on Twitter.
Durant may become an international endorsement icon with a Thunder victory over the Heat in the NBA Finals, according to marketing analysts. Game 4 of the championship series is tonight in Miami with the Heat leading the best-of-seven series two games to one.
“It’s being a real family guy, it’s being faithful to a small-town team, re-signing a contract when he could have jumped somewhere else, versus somebody like LeBron, with his ’Decision’ and what that cost him in the public eye,” Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, said in a telephone interview.
An NBA title for Durant may be worth $10 million in advertising money, according to Dorfman, who said the three-time All-Star’s wardrobe of shirts buttoned up to the neck, thick black-frame glasses and a backpack makes him look more like a college student than a millionaire.
Durant has had an endorsement deal with Sprint since the start of the season. He’s also done advertisements for Nike Inc. and Pepsi Co.’s Gatorade.
“I don’t know that there is a ceiling for Kevin Durant,” Steve Gaffney, Sprint’s vice president of sports sponsorships, said in a telephone interview. “His on-court skills are incredible and his off-court demeanor, behavior, approach, humility, put him in a very unique niche that I think is going to provide him a very long and illustrious career.”
When James joined All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he said he expected “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships. He joked that Pat Riley, the team president who is now 67, could play alongside them.
Durant has promised nothing. His favorite quote, according to Alan Stein, a friend and former strength coach, is “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”
“The people at the Thunder repeatedly tell me that to this day, Kevin practices like a rookie on a 10-day contract,” Stein, founder of Stronger Team, a basketball-specific training company, said in a telephone interview. “It all stems back to that quote.”
Durant ranked No. 31 on Sports Illustrated’s list of highest-earning American athletes last year, with $6 million in salary and $14 million in endorsements. James at No. 3 was the highest non-golfer on the list with $30 million in endorsements. Tiger Woods led the endorsements list at $60 million.
Advertisers align themselves with NBA players because of their reach in international markets. About half of the league’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube followers are outside the U.S., and this year’s Finals are available for viewing in 47 languages in 215 countries and territories.
The NBA is also the most popular sports league in China, the world’s most populous country, with more than 52 million followers on social media websites Sina Weibo and Tencent QQ, according to an e-mailed release from the NBA.
Unlike James and 14-time All-Star Kobe Bryant, who were part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in Beijing, Durant isn’t yet a popular figure in China, according to Terry Rhoads, who left as Nike’s China sports marketing director in 2002 to form Shanghai-based Zou Marketing Inc.
Durant will have to do more than win a championship to change that, Rhoads said.
“KD needs to himself invest more time in China doing youth clinics, city tours, and media activities,” Rhoads wrote in an e-mail. “Chinese youth love when a world champion spends time visiting China, learning about the country, picking up a few Mandarin Chinese phrases.”
Fanatics Inc., a Jacksonville, Florida-based retailer of licensed sports merchandise, has sold 15 percent more Thunder products than Heat products during the playoffs, according to President Jamie Davis. Durant merchandise outsold James merchandise by 25 percent, even though Oklahoma City is the U.S.’s No. 44 television market, compared with Miami at No. 16.
Durant, the NBA’s Rookie of Year in 2008, has won three scoring titles and twice finished runner-up in Most Valuable Player voting. He’s scored a league-high 6,483 points, averaging 28.7 per game since the 2009-10 season began.
“I said to people when he was coming out of college that by the time he was 25 he’d be the best player in the world,” Rick Barnes, Durant’s coach during his one season at the University of Texas, said last week on a conference call. “That’s my fault because I underestimated him.”
Gaffney, of Sprint, said the 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward is often more prepared for an endorsement shoot than actors. He may have learned that from the filming of “Thunderstruck,” a Warner Bros. movie starring Durant that is set for release this year.
Dorfman said the movie, in which an eighth-grade boy swaps his talent with Durant, will build the NBA player’s market.
“It gets him established with the younger kids who are growing into the buying demographic, and it pulls in parents of those kids who may not already follow him,” Dorfman said.
Durant is not only increasing his own brand, but that of the NBA, according to TV analyst and former player Greg Anthony.
“He’s what’s great about our game right now,” Anthony said in a conference call last week. “Any time your superstar players are as likeable off the court as they are effective on it, that bodes well for the game.”