By RICHARD SANDOMIR
Published: January 27, 2006
In 1962, Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in Hershey, Pa., was not televised, and only part of the radio broadcast has survived. But on Sunday night, when Kobe Bryant scored 81, the second-most in N.B.A. history, the game was carried on cable and satellite, replayed several times on NBA TV and is selling for $3.95 a download on the Google Video Store, along with myriad other programming.
Kobe 81 arrived less than three weeks after the opening of the Google Video Store (www.video.google.com), while Wilt 100 occurred during the heyday of the transistor radio.
"We were all on our e-mails during the second half of the game to make sure it would go up on the Internet quickly," said Brenda Spoonemore, the senior vice president for interactive services at NBA Entertainment. At a moment like Kobe 81, she said: "Our fans have the expectation to see it, own it, watch it. It feels like one of those turning points in the sports industry."
The ability to own the game means that there will be no mysteries, obviating the need for a book like the invaluable "Wilt, 1962" by Gary M. Pomerantz. We will not need to learn how Kobe did what he did Sunday against Toronto. As long as we need to amuse ourselves, we will know.
During the broadcast, Bill McDonald and Stu Lantz, the Lakers' announcers, criticized the team's defense for much of the first half. When Bryant's point total hit 21, McDonald said, "Relatively silent points, the way the Lakers are playing." That changed as Bryant scored 55 in the second half, as Staples Center fans roared for him, as the rest of his team proved inept.
"Here's Kobe again," McDonald said. "Yes!"
"Kobe all the way, reverse layup."
"Kobe, steal, 51 points."
"Kobe, dunk. Kobe has 53 points."
After Bryant scored his 58th and 59th points, McDonald suggested that he involve others in his singular enterprise. When his total hit 61, Lantz said, "I'm trying to figure the odds of reaching 75." When Bryant had 74, Lantz suggested that Coach Phil Jackson sit him down.
It was a stunning performance that might distance Bryant a little more from his arrest in 2003 on charges that he raped a desk clerk in a Colorado hotel; the case was dropped a year later when the woman refused to testify.
The accusation tainted his image, caused him to lose endorsements with McDonald's, Spalding, Nutella and Coca-Cola, and put his Nike deal in a deep freeze. Come Feb. 11, though, his Nike shoe, the $130 Zoom Kobe I, will be released, with an advertising campaign that will focus on his conditioning and mental preparation.
A short-term glimpse at Bryant's appeal, a few days after his scoring jag, looks promising. On nba.com, the highlight package of Kobe 81 (including a three-minute version of the game) has been downloaded more than one million times, and traffic to his page increased tenfold.
Also, sales of his jerseys at the NBA Store in Manhattan and on nba.com are outselling those of all other players, a leap from being fifth ranked since the season began.
With much more data to assess, SportsScan Info, which collects sales information from 13,000 retail stores nationwide, reported that two of Bryant's jerseys moved into the top 10 in the N.B.A. a few weeks ago, based on data amassed through the close of business Sunday, before Kobe 81.
But will this mean that Bryant's marketing appeal will return to anything like it was before the rape allegations? If it does, he will have to overcome the persistently negative perceptions about him.
Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, the Q Scores Company, said that among the general population, Bryant has an 11 Q rating, a measure of recognition and likeability, below the 15 norm for a sports star. His negative Q is a huge 55, lapping Barry Bonds's very high 38.
Bryant's Q scores date to this preseason, but Schafer said he doubted that his 81-point show would drop his negatives significantly when the new scores are tallied soon
"He's not doing anything outside the game that would mitigate the negative reaction significantly," he said. "You don't see remorse. Those who do show it bounce back quickly."
Jeff Chown, president of Davie-Brown Talent, an agency of the Marketing Arm, an entertainment and sports consulting company, said that Bryant was still too much of a gamble for the typical risk-averse corporation.
"From a brand perspective, Kobe's no more compelling than before the game," Chown said. "When a celebrity has a transgression, three things help: time, winning and rehabilitating his image. Time is helping; he's winning, but it's individually, and he's done nothing to rehabilitate his image."
A more positive view was offered by Neil Schwartz, SportsScan's marketing director. "The American sports fan has a really short memory," he said, "and in Kobe's case, as more time goes by, people will forget those negatives."
Kobe Bryant merchandise is hot once again. The highlight video of his 81-point game has been downloaded more than a million times.