Call it class warfare, but the questions swirling around Kobe Bryant’s search for a new sponsorship deal may well be answered in the court of public opinion in a place where he didn’t grow up-the urban inner city.

Reebok’s decision Friday to pull out of discussions with the Los Angeles Lakers star leaves Nike as the only other major athletic footwear brand that has the dollars – or marketing muscle – to cut a deal.

Reebok Chairman and CEO Paul Fireman explained their decision, saying, “We worked hard to look at the various ways in which we might make the most out of a partnership with Kobe, but in the end, we realized that we simply could not justify the costs, which our analysis showed could exceed the benefits.”

Kobe and adidas parted ways last July after six years as a basketball category pitchman that netted few positives for adidas. The relationship had been overshadowed last year by the very successful T-Mac product endorsed by Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady. Kobe’s last shoe with adidas was a disaster. McGrady has since signed a lifetime deal with the three-stripe brand.

Bryant reportedly paid $8 million to break the adidas contract, which permitted him to sign another shoe deal only after this year’s All- Star Game. The Reebok story gained steam after it was reported that he had three Reebok shoe boxes in his All-Star game locker.

Bryant told the New York Times Friday that it was his decision to break off the talks earlier this week because he felt uncomfortable with the company’s negotiating tactics. He said he was “close to a deal with Nike after breaking off talks with another company”, and intimating that he didn’t like the way Reebok was negotiating.

In the end, Reebok balked at paying Bryant a guaranteed fee, instead reportedly offering him $5 million a year with a cut of the profits. Although the deal was respectable, it is below the $6 million McGrady receives and the estimated $7 million RBK already pays Iverson.

Kobe has been playing like a player bumping his worth during free agent discussions, averaging over 42 points a game in the last eight games. But he still lacks the credibility with the all-important 12-24 year-old urban males that drive marquee basketball shoe sales.

At the recent WSA Show, one Athletic Specialty retail GMM said it was clear that a deal with Kobe was a risk based on limited acceptance by their core basketball consumer. “He’s not one of them” was the explanation.
Kobe Bryant was raised in relative comfort on Philly’s Main Line as the son a former pro basketball player.

>>> Kobe, regardless of obvious talent, is destined to be #2 wherever he goes. Nike is going to the paint in the LeBron James lottery, which could go to $25 million…