Street Smarts

Carmelo Anthony's image may be devalued, but his `street cred' could prove beneficial

December 10, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

He is, in the words of an expert, one of only 10 marketable players in the NBA.

He was the cover boy for Sports Illustrated's year-in-review issue in 2003, his smiling face peering over the words "So Young, So Good..."

He has signed big-dollar deals with Nike and EA Sports and Hallmark and Radio Shack and Got Milk, with the promise of more to come.

But considering incidents that have cast him in a negative light since last summer, including his appearance on a homemade DVD in which alleged drug dealers speak of doing harm to people who cooperate with police, has Baltimore's Carmelo Anthony sullied his image?

Or - because of the undefinable but certainly undeniable phenomenon of "street cred" - has he enhanced his appeal?

Though trying to define "street cred" is sort of like trying to define art, experts agree it has to do with being perceived as "real" - and that it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with race. And, they say, you can't try to get street cred - you either have it or you don't.

"I think credibility comes if [the public] can see themselves in that person, do they really believe what that person is saying, do they have a familiarity with how that person has lived his life up to now and where that person's coming from," said Peter P. Roby, director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

Said Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television and an expert on pop culture: "It's not about doing wrong. It's about how you carry yourself."

Last season, Anthony's Denver Nuggets jersey was the second-biggest seller in the NBA, behind fellow rookie LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"There are really only 10 guys who mean anything in the NBA, and [Anthony] is one of them," said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a marketing company that hires athletes to represent corporations.

This year, Anthony has pulled even with James, according to Neil Schwartz, director of marketing for Florida-based SportScanINFO, a firm that does market research for the athletic apparel industry.

For the week that ended Sunday, there were about 20,000 of both James and Anthony jerseys sold, Schwartz said. Sales of both players' jersey were up significantly over the previous week, but he attributed that to the holiday season.

The sneakers that the two players endorse - both made by Nike - are also essentially tied for the top two spots. Both sold about $2 million worth of shoes at the retail level in the two weeks that ended Sunday, Schwartz said.

There is a school of thought, especially in the athletic footwear and apparel industry, that "bad" sells, marketing experts say, that "street cred" helps move products off store shelves.

"It certainly has been proven in the industry with guys whose reputations have really been formed on the streets," said Howe Burch, president of Baltimore-based Twelve Sports Marketing & Communications and a former vice president of sports marketing at Fila. "Guys like Allen Iverson as an example have been very effective for Reebok.

"It's hard to say whether or not this particular incident for Carmelo will work to his advantage or disadvantage. But among certain segments, what he is alleged to have done is not so bad."

That Anthony, 20, returned to his West Baltimore neighborhood after a difficult summer - riding the bench (and complaining about it) as a member of the underachieving U.S. Olympic basketball team, being involved in a scuffle at a New York nightclub - only added to his street cred.

"... You go Hollywood on everybody, it's a different perception," Schinman said.

Anthony's troubles continued in October, when a travel bag he tried to carry through security in a Denver airport was found to contain less than an ounce of marijuana. Charges against Anthony were later dropped after a friend said the marijuana belonged to him.

"For someone like [Anthony] to stay connected to the people he grew up around, the people in the streets, gives him credibility," said USC's Boyd. "They see Carmelo staying connected to that despite having many things in his life that may encourage him to move away from it.

"It says to these people that he is loyal, and that is very important to street culture. He hasn't sold out. One of the worst things in hip-hop culture is to sell out, to make money and turn your back on where you've come from."

Roby, the director of the Center for Sport in Society, said the public finds something attractive about athletes who flout authority or find themselves in trouble.

Even former Chicago Bull Michael Jordan, one of the most beloved superstars in sports history, benefited from defying the NBA.

"Initially, his multicolored shoes were banned by the NBA, and he kept wearing them," said Roby, a former vice president of U.S. marketing for Reebok. "He kept being fined, and he still kept wearing them. And what happened? His shoes flew off the shelves. It's anti-establishment."

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