|Wednesday, May 21
Updated: May 22, 8:10 AM ET
Source: James got $1M signing bonus from Upper Deck
By Darren Rovell
LeBron James, the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, has signed what is believed to be the largest trading card and memorabilia deal for a rookie in sports history.
James signed a five-year contract with Upper Deck, one of the leading sports memorabilia companies in the world, Wednesday for at least $1 million per year plus a $1 million signing bonus, according to one source who had knowledge of the deal.
James' agent, Aaron Goodwin, declined to comment on specifics of the deal.
"Every kid who plays sports aspires to be the best and be part of a winning team," James said in a statement. "Today's deal with The Upper Deck Company not only means that I've joined a team that is the leader in the collectibles industry, but also allows me to be part of a team of world class athletes representing their products."
Competitor Topps, whose basketball business isn't as strong as Upper Deck's, put up a fight to land James during the three-week bidding process, but in the end Goodwin said James' family was most comfortable with Upper Deck.
"We're looking forward to being good business partners over the next couple years," Goodwin said. "When terms of this contract are over, LeBron will still be in his early 20s." Goodwin would not say if both parties had the option to extend the deal past the initial life of the contract, though a source said there is an option to do so.
Although every trading card company with the NBA and the NBA Players' Association license will have the right to make James' cards once he signs a player contract, Upper Deck has been granted exclusive rights to make memorabilia cards featuring James' game-used items. Upper Deck, which has endorsement deals with such high-profile athletes as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, will also be the exclusive retailer of all memorabilia bearing James' name and image.
The hype surrounding James, the 18-year-old from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, was unprecedented throughout his junior and senior seasons. In February 2002, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which dubbed him "The Chosen One." In his senior season, several games featuring James were broadcast nationally, two of which aired on ESPN's networks.
Although James has been a hot commodity in the collectibles world, he had not authorized the use of his name and image for any product prior to the Upper Deck deal. Still, for the past few months, between 800 and 1,000 items bearing James' name or likeness -- ranging from replica high school jerseys to custom painted figurines to autographed basketballs -- are up for bid on eBay.
James cards were made by SAGE Collectibles, which worked with the promoter of the Pangos Dream Classic -- a tournament James' team played in in January. The promoter, Dinos Trigonis, said the cards were authorized to hand out for free, but Goodwin said the cards should not have reached the market. The most limited edition of the sheet of cards that was distributed at the game have been selling for about $200.
"All the licensed memorabilia is coming and everyone knows this guy is going to be huge," said Tony Fay, basketball editor for Beckett, a sports collectibles publisher whose 96-page "Tribute to LeBron James" hit major bookstores two weeks ago. "Anything collectors can get their hands on, they have and will snap up."
In the book, Beckett values signed copies of the James SI cover at $100 to $200, with signed basketballs ranging from $200 to $300.
"He's as big as any athlete I've ever seen outside of Jordan and I'm talking about right now," said Fay, who worked in public relations for the Dallas Mavericks for more than a decade.
With the Upper Deck deal, SAGE -- as well as competitor Press Pass -- will be excluded from featuring James in their autographed pre-draft cards, which are not licensed by the NBA but have become very popular in the last couple of years. In the past, both SAGE and Pass Pass have signed individual deals with athletes before the draft, but Upper Deck has locked up James and Darko Milicic and Topps and Upper Deck are in the race to sign an exclusive deal with Carmelo Anthony.
"Once every 10 years, there's an extraordinary draft," said Marc Cornstein, the agent for Milicic. "I think the trading card companies realized this and a company like Upper Deck was extremely aggressive in going after the top guys."
"LeBron's the surest bet yet, but that's until he plays a game," Fay said. "Collectors are conditioned to give him time, but if he doesn't do well on the court his staying power won't be that great."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.