Will Marriage Help or Hurt LeBron James’ Brand?

After years of dating, Miami Heat guard LeBron James finally proposed to the mother of his two sons, and high school sweetheart, Savannah Brinson. The NBA all-star popped the question at SL Nightclub in Miami during a New Year’s Eve celebration, which doubled as his 27th birthday party, with a ring reportedly worth $300,000. While news of the engagement is certainly reason to celebrate, given the growing trend of high profile NBA divorces and just as a rule of thumb for anyone with a lot of assets, some suggest James should also err in the side of caution.

According to Forbes.com, three out of the top five most hated NBA players–Kris Humphries, Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker–have gone through very public and costly divorces. Coincidentally, following his controversial move from Cleveland to Miami, James is second on that list of despised basketball stars. If his marriage where to fail due to infidelity or any other public disgrace, his image and brand could go from bad to worse. Furthermore, James’ wallet could get hit just as hard. Bryant will be digging deep into his pockets as his ex-wife is reported to be getting $75 million of his earnings, since a prenuptial agreement was not signed.

Celebrity divorce attorney, Raoul Felder, who’s also known as “the Duke of Divorce,” gives three simple pieces of advice to superstar athletes like James embarking on the road to marriage. “Prenup, prenup, prenup,” says Felder, who has handled the divorce cases of World Heavyweight Champions Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, NBA legend Patrick Ewing and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “I’ve had athletes come into my office saying they didn’t want to create a prenup for fear of hurting their spouse. But I promise it will hurt more when she’s taking half.”

According to Felder, though, divorce doesn’t always have to ruin an athlete’s image. Public perception tends to sway towards the negative when there is an oddity or extreme case of infidelity like Tiger Woods and his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren.

If an athlete still doesn’t want to heed Felder’s advice, he suggests a post-nuptial agreement, which is generally harder to implement because the wife (or dependent spouse) generally has most of the negotiating power. If she doesn’t agree with the terms, the only thing left is divorce where she could receive the bulk of the reward. Another option is for an athlete is to create separate bank accounts for funds acquired before and after marriage. Therefore, if the union does end in divorce it’s easier to distinguish which funds the spouse has a right to. “Athlete divorce cases are interesting because many times their worth is represented by future earnings and endorsements,” Felder says. “A player could stop playing tomorrow but still be worth millions and his spouse could have access to that money.”

According to Forbes.com, James made $14.5 million in salary and an additional $30 million in endorsements last year. Sports Illustrated also listed him as the third highest earning athlete in the United States in 2011, right behind golfers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. With that in mind, the seven-time NBA All-Star would be wise to protect himself as Brinson would be in for a huge pay day if the marriage ended without a prenup in place.

However, marriage doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom for the two-time NBA MVP. Marvet Britto, President and CEO of The Britto Agency, a public relations firm, says the impending nuptials could actually boosts James’ image, which took a nosedive after his “decision” to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of the Miami Heat in 2010. “Marriage helps players because it positions them as a more responsible, more structured athlete and in turn makes them more desirable to consumers and endorsers,” says Britto, who has represented a host of athletes including NBA stars Latrell Sprewell, Stephon Marbury and Tyson Chandler. “Staying unmarried to Savannah and having multiple children doesn’t help LeBron, who is trying to recreate his image after leaving Cleveland. It benefits him more to make the commitment.”

Although marriage can improve an athlete’s brand, Britto doesn’t advise James to take the leap just for the sake of his image. She says a single man can build just as lucrative of a brand as a married one, the key is remaining true to who you are. Twelve-time MLB All-Star, five-time World Series champion and lifetime bachelor, Derek Jeter is a prime example of this. If James isn’t mature enough to be married, one public slip up in his marriage could send him right back into the role of villain that he fell into in the summer of 2010.

As a safety net, marriage expert and author of Before You Wed… Read This Darryl Cobbin advises James and any other individual looking to protect his/her assets to sit down with their partner and write down their expectations for each other, determine what is important and discuss them together. For James and Brinson, this may mean discussing participation in impromptu decision-making shows or preseason championship-like celebrations and most importantly a prenuptial agreement.

Using his NBA buddies as cautionary tales, James should contemplate what he wants his brand to be and how he will secure his hard-earned fortune before he walks down the aisle. “LeBron James’ life can either be a warning or an example,” Cobbin. “It’s up to him to make the decision.”