Air ball? Sponsors don't rush to Jordan

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The country's No. 2 endorser is coming back for a third go-round in the National Basketball Association. But this time, marketers aren't beating down the door for Michael Jordan, nor does the legendary player appear to be rushing to fill his day planner with commercial shoots.

And while NBA Commissioner David Stern has spoken in glowing terms of the return of his once-and-again meal ticket, not everyone is thrilled with the prospect.

"When Michael came back from his first retirement, we needed him then," said one NBA executive who asked not be identified. "We didn't have the charismatic personalities to elevate the league like Michael did. But now, with Allen [Iverson], Kobe [Bryant], Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal], Grant Hill coming back [after being sidelined last year by injury] to play with Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter, you just wonder if they get swallowed up by his return."

Added an executive from an Eastern Conference team that will face Mr. Jordan's Washington Wizards several times this year: "You have to wonder what he has, too. I mean, he's Michael Jordan. He's going to be great. But `great' might not be good enough if people start comparing him to the player who was extraordinary."

Those comments seem to explain why advertisers have been slow to embrace the return of Mr. Jordan, who announced Sept. 25 that he would end his three-year retirement and rejoin the NBA. Even while on hiatus he earned $35 million to $40 million yearly as an endorser for companies such as Nike and Nike's spinoff Jordan brand, Sara Lee Corp.'s Hanes and Ballpark brands, Rayovac Corp.'s Rayovac, PepsiCo's Gatorade and MCI WorldCom-the naming rights holder in the arena in which the Wizards play.

By comparison, golfer Tiger Woods earns $55 million, according to Burns Sports and Celebrities, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm.

Despite earlier indications to the contrary (AA, Sept. 10), neither Gatorade, which is nearing the end of a 10-year contract with Mr. Jordan, nor Nike are running ad efforts heralding his court comeback. Nike will launch a new Air Jordan sneaker next year, said a spokesman, as it does every February. Even the Jordan brand is lying low.

"We have nothing on the horizon specific to Michael coming back," said Greg Johnson, director of marketing for the Jordan brand. "Michael has been working with us to develop his brand. None of us felt it was appropriate or in keeping with the brand to say `Welcome back, Michael.' "

MCI did break a new spot featuring Mr. Jordan, however. The telecom, which uses Mr. Jordan in its 1-800-COLLECT ads, broke a new spot Sept. 25 on Viacom-owned CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman." While the spot was not specifically produced to tout Mr. Jordan's comeback, it shows the hoops star trying four different hair-dos before concluding it's best to "stick to the original." The irreverent commercial, created by Havas Advertising's Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/ Euro RSCG, New York, also features the voice-over: "1-800-COLLECT is America's No. 1 way to call collect."

"We went into this not believing he was going to come back," said Jeff Grosman, director of 1-800-COLLECT. "In our minds, his brand is strong and that's what we're associating our brand with." Mr. Jordan has been part of MCI's collect-calling effort since July 1.

Also, PNT Media, a seller of Palm organizers, recently signed a three-year deal with Mr. Jordan to put his name and signature on a line of the popular personal digital assistants.

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