Is LeBron James Worth $90 Million?

ByJohn Berman

N E W  Y O R K, May 24, 2003 -- LeBron James is not your average honors student.

His high school basketball games made national television. His moves are followed all over the Internet.

"He is the best high school player I have ever seen," said Terry Pluto, a sports columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal of Ohio.

And Nike is betting $90 million that his game is the kind that sells shoes.

"If all of a sudden, kids in playgrounds and kids in school are talking about their player, and therefore their sneaker, there is a lot of juice that comes with that," said Peter Land, general manager of Edelman Sports Marketing.

But juice worth $90 million?

Analysts say an endorsement from a great player can increase market share. And Nike stock jumped more than 30 cents Thursday on news of the deal.

Nike wasn't the only company in the hunt. Reebok made a huge bid. And Adidas even put up billboards in James' hometown of Akron to try to woo him.

Like Mike?

They see in LeBron James the kind of potential they saw in his hero, the ultimate basketball pitchman, Michael Jordan.

"This is just like with Jordan," Pluto said. "People are lining up just to look at the kid, just like they were with Jordan."

For all of the hype, LeBron James is no sure thing. He has never played a pro game. He's skipping college altogether. All of his success has come in high-school gyms."

High school or not, his contract dwarfs Jordan's first sneaker deal, worth just $2.5 million. Shaquille O'Neal made $3 million in his first deal. And golf superstar Tiger Woods, the current endorsement king, made $40 million in his first deal.

Will all this money overwhelm someone so young? LeBron James won't get to prove himself in the pros until next fall.

For now, he just gets to be 18 — and rich.

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