Former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a long-time soccer fan, is helping support MLS’ new partnership with sports drink company BodyArmor. (Chris Carlson/AP)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — NBA legend Kobe Bryant will step off the sidelines as a soccer fan this season, making his first foray into professional soccer in America.

He’s helping tout a new partnership between MLS and BodyArmor — a sports drink company Bryant has invested in since 2014, acquiring a 10% stake that is now valued at $200 million.

A long-time fan of the game, Bryant first started tracking the league when David Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007. 

“I was able to kind of gauge what the energy was at the time, it was still relatively unfamiliar to the U.S. market,” Bryant said. “To be able to fast forward now, you’re gonna see the energy that’s kind of been put behind MLS. I wouldn’t say it’s surprising. I’ve always appreciated the game, and I’m happy to see it catch on.”

Soccer was one of the first sports that Bryant played. He was introduced to soccer as a child when his father played basketball in Italy, and he grew up as an A.C. Milan fan.

Bryant isn’t the first NBA star to become interested in MLS and the sport of soccer as a whole. NBA players such as Luka Doncic travel to games in America and abroad, and the two sports have seen increasing overlap between fan bases and players alike.

To Bryant, this comes from a shared style of play in the two sports.

“It’s the connectivity in the sport itself,” Bryant said. “You have to use each other, you have to communicate with each other verbally and through the ball. You have to read each other, open space for each other. There’s a lot of similarities between basketball and soccer.”

Although Bryant said he had looked at different opportunities, he doesn’t plan on becoming an MLS owner any time soon, stating a lack of interest in owning any type of sports franchise.

Instead, he prefers to utilize his presence in sports to boost MLS from a marketing perspective. As he continues to explore visual storytelling — Bryant won an Academy Award for Best Short in 2018 for a film he wrote and directed — the former NBA star plans to use his creative skills to support the league.

His business and creative interests led to his support of BodyArmor’s partnership with MLS. The alliance will include exclusive branded bottles fans can get through social media contests. BodyArmor will also provide equipment and support to MLS academy programs.

The sports drink company will also activate team partnerships with 19 clubs — Austin FC, Chicago Fire FC, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew SC, D.C. United, FC Cincinnati, Houston Dynamo, Inter Miami FC, LAFC, Minnesota United FC, Nashville SC, New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, Orlando City SC, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City.

At the club and league level, Bryant hopes to use the collaboration as an opportunity to grow the sport and bolster the MLS.

“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 newer markets that are coming now, is the marketing and the storytelling of the players. Who they are, the beauty of the game, educating fans of what’s a beautiful play, things of that nature. With our partnership with BodyArmor we’re absolutely looking forward to doing those stories and getting that word out there more.”

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