As Kyrie Irving inches tantalizingly closer to that elite class of players in the NBA, he is also creeping toward another elite, equally lucrative status within the league: A star endorser.
The success of Irving's "Uncle Drew" character in the Pepsi Max series has swung open a whole new world for the Cavs' star. His latest venture with Foot Locker, a spoof on all those slow-motion dunk highlight videos, is already drawing high praise from marketing experts in the industry. As more people learn of Irving's acting skills, the demand is increasing.
"If you make a list of the best actors who also have a sports connection, he's edging into that list that includes LeBron, Shaq, Dwight Howard and Kobe," ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell said. "When you're thinking about executing an ad with copy, those are the guys you go to. Kyrie is edging into that group."
The reigning Rookie of the Year now has endorsements with Nike, Pepsi Max, Foot Locker, Skullcandy and EA Sports. He has a memorabilia and trading card deal with Panini, local sponsorships with a window company and a car dealer in Northeast Ohio and a few more agreements nearing completion.
Irving's popularity has exploded in recent months, begging the question why? Was it the Rookie of the Year award or the popularity of the Uncle Drew character Irving created for Pepsi Max? Rovell never hesitated.
"Uncle Drew by a mile," he said. "The Rookie of the Year is OK. At some point, you need to be good on the court and the Rookie of the Year proves you're the best rookie out there, but I doubt people are saying, 'He's the Rookie of the Year, that's why we want him.'0x226??"
Industry leaders who follow sports marketing didn't believe Irving could brand himself this well, particularly so soon. He was drafted to an awful team in a small market days before the lockout began. Expectations regarding his marketing appeal were pretty low.
"There's something about what he's done. He's almost better off the court than on it," Rovell said. "He's doing well (playing), but he's been so fantastic with the Uncle Drew thing."
Irving created the Uncle Drew character himself and based it off another viral video he watched of an elderly man in a skate park who takes a skateboard out of his briefcase and begins doing stunts.
The old guy showing up the young buck theme has been tackled before, but Irving's catch phrases ("young blood," "I get buckets"), his demeanor and his rare gifts on the court made it an instant sensation. Now the word is out and Irving is one of the hottest commodities among young players in the NBA.
"He's had two fabulous partners," Rovell said, referring to Pepsi Max and Foot Locker. "Where people sometimes don't give credit is to the partners themselves. When Peyton Manning came out of college, there was no expectation he'd be one of the most popular endorsers, but he picked blue-chip companies that wrote things well for him."
The plan to make Irving one of the league's most marketable young stars began well before he won the Rookie of the Year award and certainly before Uncle Drew was born.
The plan began during All-Star weekend last year in Orlando, Fla., when Irving approached the event like his Super Bowl. He had no other choice.
The Cavs didn't have any games on ESPN, TNT or ABC. No one knew much about the top overall pick because he was hurt most of his only college season and Cleveland became a punch line in the weeks and months after LeBron James left.
Irving's first three days were jammed. He had a meeting with EA Sports, participated in an NBA Cares event, practiced for the Rising Stars game, did a spot with Skullcandy, scored 34 points and made all eight of his 3-point attempts to win the MVP award of the Rising Stars game. He had four separate meetings with potential endorsers, made an appearance at a local Champs Sports, competed in the Skills Challenge as part of All-Star Saturday night, then attended an NBA China partners reception late in the evening. As a reward, Irving took Sunday off and went to Universal Studios with his friends . . . and took along the same NBA TV film crew that documented his every move the previous three days.
It was the relationships established during that trip that cleared the way for all of this, just like it was Irving's first spot with Pepsi Max that led to Uncle Drew. Before he wrote and directed the Uncle Drew series, Irving wrote and directed a spot titled "What would I do with Pepsi Max for life?" It was just a 90-second internet video that didn't gain much traction, but it revealed Irving's personality to Pepsi and other companies.
The fear in all this, of course, is that it distracts him from basketball or impacts his time on the court. But Irving's advisers, led by agent Jeff Wechsler, have kept the main focus on basketball and haven't worried about building the type of branding empire James created even before establishing himself as an NBA superstar.
Likewise, Cavs coach Byron Scott said he isn't worried about Irving's new-found fame from Uncle Drew or other endorsements blurring his vision.
"That doesn't concern me because of the type of person he is," Scott said. "It was the same thing with CP (Chris Paul). You knew right away he was going to blow up to be not only one of the best point guards, but one of the best players in the NBA. If you met his family, you knew that wasn't going to change. It's the same thing with Kyrie. If you really got a chance to sit down and talk with Dred (his father), you know he was raised the right way. His two words of 'humble' and 'hungry' that he lives by, I don't think that will ever change with him."