Jordan trades pitches for piece of the action

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Michael Jordan wants a piece of the action, and not just on the basketball court.

The Madison Avenue go-to man -- who last week said he was "totally" through with commercial endorsements -- wants a more active role in the businesses he represents, according to his agent, David Falk of SFX Entertainment.

"He doesn't just want to endorse, he wants to be the principal and owner of the company," Mr. Falk said, adding that Mr. Jordan in the past several years signed deals that would allow him to make this "natural evolution."

Mr. Jordan will honor his current commitments; they include endorsement deals with companies such as Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade, Nike, MCI WorldCom, Rayovac Corp. and Sara Lee Corp., Mr. Falk said.

Mr. Jordan, who could not be reached for comment, makes an estimated $40 million annually from those endorsements.

Mr. Jordan's current obligations fall into two categories. For Gatorade and Rayovac, he "just promotes the products," while his Oakley sunglasses and Jordan cologne deals allow him a greater "degree of input and control," Mr. Falk said.

INCREASING INFLUENCE

During the past few years, Mr. Jordan has gained increased influence on products he touts. He currently sits on Oakley's board and co-designs a line of sunglasses.

"His business acumen and his sports skills are more important than what endorsement he can do with us," said Oakley VP-Sports Marketing Scott Bowers.

At Nike, he's already part of Brand Jordan's executive team. In a statement last week, Nike said Mr. Jordan "continues to be directly involved in product design, development and creation." By some estimates, Mr. Jordan's deal with Nike amounts to half of his endorsement dollars. (The retired Chicago Bulls star is also president of basketball operations for the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards.)

Mr. Jordan shocked the ad world last week, after a March 22 Chicago Sun-Times article quoted him saying, "I'm getting totally out of the endorsement aspect of things."

Mr. Jordan's retirement from playing basketball was well-orchestrated at a time when his talent and appeal were at their peak. The bid for ownership stakes is similarly timed. Contracts with MCI and CBS SportsLine aren't due to expire for at least five years, and several others are still multiyear deals. Ownership demands are more likely to be granted now than at the end of his contracts.

DEAL-SAVVY

His Airness' move comes as more athletes have an increased interest in business dealings.

Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Services, said athletes are more savvy in the deals they strike. For example, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant not only has an investment in Olimpia Milano, he also got trading-card company Upper Deck to sponsor the Italian basketball team.

Greg Norman's 1990 deal with golf equipment manufacturer Cobra is considered a landmark. Mr. Norman not only agreed to use and endorse Cobra, but he won the right to be the exclusive distributor of Cobra golf equipment in Australia. When Cobra was later acquired by Acushnet Co., he reportedly reaped $40 million.

But boxer George Foreman has gone the furthest. He sold his name outright to cookware manufacturer Salton for $137.8 million.

And many are now turning to Internet ventures.

Mr. Jordan recently partnered with former Denver Broncos football great John Elway and New York Rangers hockey star Wayne Gretzky to form online sporting goods store MVP.com. Mr. Jordan also recently bought 1 million shares of Internet incubator divine interVentures at $1 a share.

"Sports these days is as much business as it is entertainment," said BBDO Worldwide Senior VP-Director of Integrated Marketing Services John Osborn. "Athletes are more than just a talking head. They're shrewd businessmen."

Contributing: Mercedes M. Cardona

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