LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant has watched Major League Soccer's growth over the past dozen years and likes what he's seen, and now he's lending his celebrity to the league as it continues to expand across America.
Bryant spoke about his involvement in the game Wednesday at LAFC's Banc of California Stadium as MLS announced a marketing deal with BODYARMOR, as the official sports drink of 19 of the league's club and with a youth soccer initiative coinciding with the kickoff of the league's 25th season.
Bryant, a shareholder in in the company, retired four years ago after playing 20 seasons and winning five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, but his background in soccer dates to his childhood in Italy, and he's followed the league since David Beckham's arrival in 2007.
He's been impressed with MLS's growth.
“When David first came out here, I came down and watched him play,” Bryant told media on the Banc of California pitch. “I was able to kind of gauge what the energy was at that time, and it was still relatively unfamiliar to the U.S. market.
“Then to be able to fast-forward now and to see the energy that has kind of been put behind MLS, and the amount of support that's being put behind MLS, it's, I wouldn't say, surprising, because I've always appreciated the game and what a beautiful game it is and knew eventually America would catch on.”
Bryant spent a half-dozen years as a child in Italy, where his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant played after an eight-year NBA career, and became a fan of AC Milan and later, FC Barcelona. He can talk at length and with great intelligence about the game and its players. Just don't ask him which of the local clubs — LA Galaxy or LAFC — he supports.
“Really?” he responded when queried on that topic Wednesday. “Ask me something better.”
OK, how about what his profile might mean for the league.
“Hopefully, what my involvement will do is help with some of the marketing and storytelling of the game,” Bryant said. “The most important thing, particularly in some of these markets — the newer markets that are coming now — is the marketing and storytelling of the players. Who they are, the beauty of the game.
“Educate fans on what's a beautiful play and things of that nature, and with our partnership with BODYARMOR, we're absolutely looking forward to doing those stories and getting that word out there more. And with my name, hopefully that will help.”
There's long been a connection between soccer and basketball, the two foremost international sports, and several high-profile basketball players have stepped into MLS ownership groups or been linked to potentially doing so. Steve Nash has long been part of the Vancouver Whitecaps' management. Magic Johnson was the early face of LAFC's ownership group, James Harden joined Houston Dynamo's ownership last summer, and Kevin Durant has been connected to the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United.
LeBron James, Bryant's successor with the Lakers, has owned a piece of Liverpool FC since 2001.
Might Bryant follow a similar path?
“I have looked at several opportunities,” he said. “I'm not really big on owning franchises — sports teams, per se — but you never know. If the right opportunity comes along, then I'll definitely look at it.”
He sees a deeper link between soccer and basketball.
“Really, it's the connectivity of the sport itself,” he said. “You have to use each other [in both sports], you have be able to communication with each other, verbally and also through the ball itself. You know, being able to read each other and how to open space for each other."