An El Segundo technology company has signed a licensing deal that allows it to sell NBA-branded jerseys for $1 each. Trick is they're virtual jerseys for online avatars.

Fuhu Inc. runs the Fuhu.com Web site that lets users create virtual "identity" cards with an image or avatar on the front and information about the user on the back. The card can then be placed on a profile at a social network like MySpace or Facebook.

Fuhu's National Basketball Association deal allows social networkers to "wear" NBA jerseys and apparel on their identity cards. It launched the initiative at the beginning of this year's basketball playoffs.

"The NBA is using our technology to promote its players and the playoffs," said Jim Mitchell, Fuhu chief executive.

Fuhu was founded last year by Robb Fujioka and John Hui hence the company name. Startup funding came from international investors, including a top computer manufacturer. It currently has 30 employees.

The site has 17,000 users who have created virtual cards with their images. Many of those joined over the past week, thanks to the NBA deal.

In addition to the NBA contract, Fuhu has promoted its product with several major recording artists. Britney Spears worked with the company to produce a card that she linked to her MySpace page. The back of the card gives fans information on her current tour. Rapper Lil' Kim also worked with the company to create a virtual image. She liked the result so much she featured the card in her latest music video, which debuted last week.

Most content and clothing for avatars is free. However, Fuhu expects to make money off its product by allowing users to customize images with name-brand items, such as the NBA jerseys, for a small fee. In addition to the jerseys, the company has partnered with Oakley Inc. so users can add sunglasses to their virtual images.

The deal with the NBA is Fuhu's first major sports contract in the United States. The company has already formed a similar partnership with Italian soccer club Intermilan. It expects to continue building virtual identity cards for athletes and is in talks with the International Olympic Committee to build avatars for athletes competing in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.

Speed Zone

When Townsend Bell suits up at this year's Indianapolis 500, he will be fully branded by nutritional supplement manufacturer and distributor Herbalife Ltd. His fire suit, helmet and the car's paint job will be covered in Herbalife green.

That's part of the deal he signed with the downtown L.A. company as driver of its car in the open-wheel series' biggest race.

The full name of the team is Herbalife-KV Racing Technology Honda/Dallara/Firestone, combining sponsors, manufacturers and owners. Bell will be driving in his third Indy race May 24. His team has two other drivers with separate sponsors.

This year's race marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Indianapolis track, although the centennial anniversary of its first 500-mile race will be in 2011.

Bell has been an Herbalife-sponsored athlete for the past year. The supplement maker also sponsors IndyCar drive E.J. Viso, who will also be driving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ratings Spike

Beach volleyball players will be seen in more than 75 million households in the United States now that L.A.-based AVP Inc. has signed a national television distribution deal with Versus cable channel. The deal calls for Versus to broadcast 11 of the 14 remaining AVP Crocs summer tour events.

"We haven't had a national television schedule for quite awhile," said Jason Hodell, AVP chief executive.

Hodell stepped into the chief executive role after last month's departure of longtime AVP CEO Leonard Armato. Armato is married to Holly McPeak, a former volleyball champion who retired last week.

Hodell had served as chief operating officer of the tour prior to his promotion. He said that the Versus deal is a critical step toward profitability because it will give its athletes and sponsors more exposure.

"Our sponsors want to see media exposure of their brand all season long," Hodell said. "This Versus deal creates a platform for us to go out and win more sponsorships and take care of them."

NBC will be broadcasting the three AVP events that aren't being broadcast by Versus.

AVP has also begun live streaming of tournaments on its Web site. The company produced 12 hours of Internet coverage during the most recent tournament in Florida and expects similar online coverage throughout the season.

Staff reporter David Nusbaum can be reached at dnusbaum@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 236.

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