LeBron James earns more money from endorsements (about $53 million per year) than any athlete in the world other than Tiger Woods. The 29-year-old has inked lucrative long-term deals with Nike, Sprite, McDonalds and a variety of other businesses.
But until recently, James had not signed one of the more common deals for athletes of his stature: a partnership with a car company.
Woods, Peyton Manning, Roger Federer, Shaquille O'Neal and David Beckham are all car endorsers. Despite his love for automobiles -- James has a luxury car collection of more than 20 rides and he even bought his mom a $50,000 Hummer as a gift when he was a high school senior -- the four-time NBA MVP was never linked with a single company.
According to ESPN, James has signed a multi-million dollar deal with Kia and will serve as the brand ambassador for Kia's luxury sedan, the K900.
James provided a clue that the deal would be upcoming when he posted this picture to Instagram in August:
Rolling around in my K900. Love this car!! #Kia #TheLand #Akron #StriveForGreatness
Coincidentally, James has been given several Kia vehicles (a sponsor of the NBA, Kia provides a car to the league's MVP) but he donated them to his foundation. It was only this summer when James' business partner, Maverick Carter, suggested James try out the $66,000 K900 that he became interested. James loved the ride, and a partnership was born.
James' endorsement was met with some surprise by people who don't associate Kia with high-end cars.
"LeBron endorsing a $66,000 Kia"----66k should buy you 6 Kias
— Kyle Inman (@DrHoopenstein) October 15, 2014
Even with LeBron endorsing it, don't see too many folks dropping $70k on a Kia.
— Jonesey (@Suns6thMan) October 15, 2014
Nobody driving a $70k Kia fam. I don't care if Lebron himself does the powder toss with you every time you start the engine
— W.E.B.B.I.E DuBois (@fivefifths) October 15, 2014
"The company's main problem, as it continues to grow and strive for new territory, is still brand perception. People see a Kia badge, and they just don't like its inherent associations. Most people's reactions are 'it's still a Kia.' But with moves like this, and promotions from big names that people admire and trust, the company might be able to continue shifting its status."
The K900 is $20,000 more than Kia's next expensive car, and by attaching himself to the line James may not singlehandedly boost sales. But Tim Chaney, vice president of marketing at Kia Motors America, says James' image is important for the grander scheme.
"This is not about just selling a few luxury sedans," Chaney told ESPN. "We are looking to LeBron to help boost our brand profile."
As part of James' deal, he is required to show up to Cavaliers home games in a Kia (Tiger Woods had a similar provision in his Buick deal). James will be appearing in several commercials for Kia, and he even pulled some strings to have a K900 used in this McDonalds spot:
Kia has had a lot of success with its other high-profile NBA endorser, Blake Griffin, and Griffin's work in Kia commercials has been met with positive reviews.