- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

International players long ago made an impact on the NBA with their on-court skills. Now foreign-born stars more and more are cashing in on the endorsement opportunities their American teammates have enjoyed for years.

Thanks in part to the NBA’s efforts to promote basketball overseas, players such as Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, a Canadian, and San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker of France have found on-court success increasingly translating into marketability.

International players now hold 108 endorsement deals, up from 57 four years ago, according to the NBA. And during those four years, the number of international players in the league rose from 68 to 83, an indication several of the top foreign-born stars have landed more than one endorsement deal.

“The level of talent of our international talent is at an all-time high,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA’s senior vice president for marketing partnerships. “We’ve got players like Steve Nash, [Spurs guard] Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker making huge contributions to their teams that make them very popular with marketers and fans.”

Davie Brown Entertainment, a Dallas-based talent agency, places four international players on its list of the top 10 most marketable players, including Nash, Parker, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.

The list also includes Spurs center Tim Duncan, who is from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“You’re seeing increased globalization, and in order to get that globalization, the [NBA] needs to find athletes they can use to brand the league,” said James Santomier, who as director of the sports management program at Sacred Heart University has consulted with international companies about their relationship to sports leagues. “Companies are also finding that they can use these athletes for their own branding.”

Yao, who pulled in more than $10 million in endorsements when he broke into the league in 2002, was named the top celebrity in China by Forbes Magazine for the third consecutive year. His endorsement portfolio includes deals with McDonald’s, Visa and Apple, and he recently signed on with Garmin, a maker of global positioning systems.

Nash has deals with Nike, MDG Computers and Clearly Canadian, a maker of flavored waters. He also recently became part of a campaign with FedEx involving Parker, Ginobili, Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko and New Orleans Hornets forward Peja Stojakovic.

“I think what you’re seeing is maybe we’re becoming more American and Americans are becoming more international,” Nash said. “And with the influx of international players, everyone’s slowly becoming more comfortable.”

The FedEx campaign is designed to promote the company’s international shipping and will include advertising and events at the NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas next month.

“The players represent the far reaches of the world, and it is very fitting for FedEx’s global business,” said Kevin Demsky, director of sponsorship marketing for FedEx. “We are very excited to have formed a strategic alliance with the NBA that connects our international business to the NBA’s global popularity and its growing number of international players.”

Several of the most marketable international NBA players, including Nash, Duncan and Nowitzki, are considered elite players in the league, on a par with top American stars such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But even more low-profile players like Ginobili and Kirilenko have been cashing in.

“Talent helps, but you don’t have to be off the charts,” said David Carter, director of the Sports Business Group and a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “The international guys may be able to compensate with other things. There’s a real appeal and tremendous curiosity to them.”

The growth in popularity of the international players has coincided with efforts by the NBA to boost the sport overseas. The league has major operations in Europe and in China, where an estimated 500 million watch NBA games.

“I think what we’re seeing is that the NBA is at what we like to call the mature stage of the product life cycle here in the U.S., and it’s looking to expand to different geographic locations,” said Chia-Chen Yu, director of the undergraduate sports management program at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.

Chia-Chen, who is from Taiwan, said Yao remains the most popular player in her native country but that there is growing interest by Chinese companies in partnering with lesser known Chinese players.

NBA officials said they do not directly market individual international players but do have a program that matches players with companies seeking endorsers. Increasingly, they said, that program is being used to match foreign companies with some of the league’s international talent.

The increase in endorsement deals for international players is seen as especially remarkable because very few of these players are known as aggressive self-promoters.

Nash, for instance, has made a point of accepting only endorsements that tie in with his various charitable endeavors, and Nowitzki has turned down as many as five prominent deals in the last year, according to Davie Brown.

“It’s tough to generalize, but growing up we weren’t subjected to showboating or braggadocio,” the soft-spoken Nash said. “You get knocked down pretty quickly, especially in [Canada’s] hockey culture. I think we learned a lot growing up on how to be humble.”

Experts said this perceived humility has become an attractive trait for advertisers, many of whom have been hurt by the off-court problems of some American players.

“The branding game is becoming more sophisticated, and companies are looking for players who won’t cause a lot of problems,” Santomier said.

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