Chinese Internet provider signs LeBron James to endorse NBA2K video games

One of the top Internet providers in China is reaching over to Miami for a celebrity endorsement from LeBron James.

Tencent, based in Hong Kong, announced on Monday that James will help promote the Chinese version of the popular NBA2K video games. James will appear in advertising campaigns in China and will also “have the opportunity to provide creative input on game modes and in-game content.” Tencent issued a press release on the day that James and the Miami Heat prepared to take on the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of a tied-up NBA championship.

The company release quoted James as saying: “I am proud of this partnership because it gives me a way to reach my fans in China and interact with them in a whole new way.”

The deal gives James another foothold into the lucrative Chinese market, a top target for the NBA and a ripe source of new endorsement dollars for celebrities. “It could be bigger for LeBron than for Tencent,’’ said Robert Tuchman, president of GoViva, a sports and entertainment marketing company in New York.

James already is a paid endorser for Dunkin’ Donuts in Asia, but the agreement with Tencent puts James front and center with a company operating solely in the Chinese marketplace. His role as a pitchman contributes to the No.1 source of income for James, who earned $18 million playing basketball in 2012 and $42 million from endorsements, according to a Forbes analysis.

And while the U.S. market dominates that income stream, experts see growing Chinese affluence and prosperity as the future for growing endorsement dollars. Seeing a bottomless market of consumers, the NBA has been courting Chinese fans with a series of exhibition games that brought James to China for the ninth time last fall.

Despite his dominance of the U.S. sports market — he’s the top-earning NBA player and No. 4 in terms of top-grossing athletes, according to Forbes — James only last year broke into the champion ranks, a key requirement for Chinese fans, experts said.

“The Chinese are enamored with winners and guys with rings,’’ said Bob Dorfman, creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco and an authority on sports endorsement deals.

“Maybe Kobe Bryant is still a little ahead of him when it comes to appeal in China,” he said. “But LeBron is gaining fast.”

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