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JORDAN, MARKETERS CONTINUE TO SCORE A YEAR AFTER SUPERSTAR'S NBA EXIT, ALL SIDES LOOK CONFIDENTLY TO FUTURE

By Published on .

There may be a little less "super," but there's still plenty of "star" in Michael Jordan. And that's just fine.

It's been a year since the greatest, most famous basketball player ever retired in stunning fashion from the NBA. Pundits and press immediately leaped to doomsday conclusions about Mr. Jordan's sponsors and the NBA. But today, the world still stands, looking much the same.

The NBA still ranks as the top sports brand name in the world.

Nike still sells more shoes than the competition.

Gatorade still has its market bottled up.

And Mr. Jordan himself is now giving lessons in perseverance, rather than on-court flight, as he struggles with a new career in baseball.

The crepe-hangers who speculated otherwise both underestimated the marketing savvy of these companies and the enduring appeal of Mr. Jordan.

However, many of the marketers that pay Mr. Jordan an estimated $30 million a year for his smile and celebrity find their relationships at a crossroads. McDonald's Corp. is reassessing the role Mr. Jordan will play in future advertising. Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade is defining Mr. Jordan's role in its future marketing plans, which include international expansion. And Nike is looking to a new generation of stars to support its basketball business.

McDonald's, nearing the middle of a 10-year deal with Mr. Jordan, didn't change the way it used him in its advertising, nor did the fast-food giant use him any less frequently. Mr. Jordan-decked in his civvies-shot hoops with Larry Bird and Charles Barkley in a sequel to 1993's "Nothing But Net" spot from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. He was also in a kids spot featuring David Falk, the CEO of Washington-based Falk Associates Management Enterprises, which handles Mr. Jordan's marketing.

"If Nike shaped his on-court marketing persona, we like to think we made MJ's off-court persona," said Jackie Woodward, director of sports marketing for McDonald's.

That person: a winning smile, charming and loved by kids. A Ronald McDonald in sneakers.

Ms. Woodward said Mr. Jordan's switch to baseball has only been difficult for McDonald's in that he now has even less free time.

But there could be more changes ahead in the relationship.

"We're discussing these kinds of issues with his marketing managers right now," Ms. Woodward said. "Our relationship with him will continue to evolve. As long as our customers think he's great, we're going to use him. But how our continued relationship takes shape in the form of advertising remains to be seen."

Gatorade, which also has a 10-year deal with Mr. Jordan, has fared just fine since his retirement despite new competition. For the 52 weeks ended April 24, Gatorade sales were up 8.6% to $330 million, with an 82.6% market share, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

Gatorade dropped its basketball-theme "Be Like Mike" campaign and found new ways of using Mr. Jordan. Fortunately, Mr. Jordan's baseball career provided fodder for new spots from Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, Chicago.

"The real challenge going forward will be how to use him creatively," said Bill Schmidt, director of sports marketing for Gatorade. He noted certain elements will stay the same: that special smile and kid appeal. Mr. Jordan "comes off so well, he can make mediocre material good."

Mediocre material rarely comes to mind when one thinks of Nike ads from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. But the athletic footwear giant has been judicious in its use of Mr. Jordan in recent years, partly out of concerns about overexposure. Nike tapped Mr. Barkley to pick up the slack, but he, too, is looking to retire-and his deal with Nike expires at the end of the upcoming NBA season.

But how has their namesake's retirement affected sales of Air Jordan sneakers and apparel? Nike and others don't break out sales figures for their various lines-at least publicly. A Nike spokesman said sales remain strong, but there are reports to the contrary.

"There were definite signs of decrease, according to retailer reports. It's become a smaller part of Nike's business," said Andrew Gaffney, editor of Sporting Goods Business, New York. But he noted that the slip could also be the result of an overall decline in popularity of basketball shoes and apparel.

Still, Mr. Gaffney said, retailers are reporting that the basketball business hasn't been the same since Mr. Jordan retired.

Other companies' athletes are trying to fill the void. Converse and Larry Johnson have proved to be a potent success. And after a sluggish start, retailers are reporting that Reebok International's Shaq Attaq line, endorsed by Mr. Jordan's heir apparent, Shaquille O'Neal, is finally picking up steam.

As for Nike, the company is developing new ad stars. It's apparent that Nike is high on Mr. O'Neal's Orlando Magic teammate, Anfernee Hardaway, and Chris Webber of the Golden State Warriors. Nike has also signed highly touted rookie Jason Kidd.

Mr. Jordan's other sponsors say their faith in his viability as a marketing vehicle remains unshaken. General Mills last month signed its Wheaties endorser to a new multiyear deal.

While he isn't looking for any new deals for Mr. Jordan, Mr. Falk said his client's baseball activities have made him more marketable, despite his lackluster rookie season.

"One of the dynamics of his popularity is that he's completely believable as a corporate spokesperson, but as a performer on the court, he's unbelievable," Mr. Falk said. "But take him into baseball, where he's not incredible, and you have another dynamic. There's sympathy for him ... people admire him even more for trying again and again. It's harder to relate to a superman. Perhaps it's easier to relate to him now."

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