The National Basketball Association's marquee attraction is back after a 17-month retirement and a yearlong flirtation with Major League Baseball. And the buzz in the sports marketing industry is that Mr. Jordan is more valuable now to his sponsors and the entire sports marketing industry than he was two years ago, when he led the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive NBA crown wearing jersey No. 23.
It's not just that he gave up on baseball, a sport becoming more and more unpopular with both fans and marketers. But by returning to basketball refreshed, repackaged (as No. 45) and committed to regaining past glories, Mr. Jordan is providing for his sponsors a compelling story that will keep casual and hard-core basketball fans the world over riveted until the next time he retires.
"The press and fans were looking for him to fail at baseball, but they're all rooting for him to succeed in basketball," said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, Chicago. "The coverage has been so decidedly pro-basketball. There's a lot of good will for a marketer to tap into here."
And that good will spreads from Chicago to China.
"Without Qiao Dan [as Mr. Jordan is called in China], American basketball is humdrum," said one 25-year-old fan in Beijing. Trumpeted a headline in the popular Beijing Evening News: "Jordan's return to world of basketball causes stock market to rise." The story noted the good fortune of U.S. companies that use Mr. Jordan as an endorser.
Those marketers, which pay Mr. Jordan $30 million a year for his endorsement, are moving quickly to cash in on the global hoopla:
General Mills will put No. 45 on a Wheaties box next week, and DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, is currently retinkering an existing spot to include new Jordan footage.
Nike is rushing to markets in the U.S. and Mexico with a series of "He's Back" T-shirts. If a new Jordan spot from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., isn't included in a springtime spate of basketball-theme creative, then look for a big buildup this fall for the Dec. 1 introduction of the Air Jordan XI basketball shoe and apparel lines.
Sara Lee Corp.'s Hanes brand is about to begin work on Jordan TV spots from Lintas, New York, that will hit this summer.
Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade unit has been most opportunistic, opting to launch its "Life is a sport, drink it up" ad campaign from Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, Chicago, a month early with two Jordan spots that aired during NBC's highly rated first game back for Mr. Jordan March 20. Another spot made up of NBA game footage and new Jordan highlights is in the works. Gatorade might also bring back the "Be like Mike" jingle.
And those are only some of the highlights on this continent. Jordanmania is a global phenomenon, and his sponsors plan to take advantage. Gatorade, seeking to leverage Mr. Jordan's worldwide fame to introduce its brand in new markets, hopes that the endorser will tour Asia this summer to promote the brand. McDonald's Corp. and Nike will lean on Mr. Jordan heavily in their 1996 Summer Olympics efforts around the world.
Mr. Jordan's latest career switch is not without challenges for some of his sponsors. Mr. Jordan as a pitchman for Hillshire Farm's Ball Park Franks made more sense when he was a baseball athlete, given the natural linkage between hot dogs and baseball. The original basketball ads from three years ago are considered some of the worst in Mr. Jordan's marketing portfolio. Lintas, New York, handles.
Mr. Jordan's baseball career was helping Upper Deck Co. and other sports trading card companies weather the MLB work stoppage. "With Michael walking away from baseball, it doesn't help things," an Upper Deck spokesman said. "It'll probably hurt the market even more."
But Upper Deck is hoping to cut that loss with the new SP Basketball Set, with at least two premium cards featuring Mr. Jordan sporting his new number.
While Mr. Jordan would have remained an important part of these companies' marketing plans even if he hadn't returned to the NBA, he has made himself a more potent weapon by doing so.
"Clearly, he is the most visible playing basketball," said Bill Schmidt, Gatorade's general manager of sports marketing. "But we are capable of using him and will use him no matter what he does. Michael transcends sports."
On and off the court, Mr. Jordan will have to face off against young, rising superstars. The premier battle may be between Mr. Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. MJ and Shaq were to meet on the court last Friday, in Mr. Jordan's first game back in Chicago. Scalpers were snaring more than $500 a ticket for that game.
Gatorade rival All Sport ran a page newspaper ad in select markets, including Chicago, on Friday featuring its endorser-Mr. O'Neal. The biggest chunks of copy read: "Just another basketball player [arrow pointing to Mr. O'Neal]," "Just another sports drink [arrow pointing to All Sport bottle]" and "Yeah, and tonight is just another basketball game." BBDO Worldwide, New York, handles the Pepsi-Cola Co. isotonic.
Another such skirmish will occur on a global scale with Nike (read Jordan) vs. Reebok International (read O'Neal).
"It really crystallizes a rivalry that's always been there: Shaq vs. Jordan, both on the court and off," said Leonard Armato, Mr. O'Neal's agent. "What will it cost the loser? It's hard to say. Right now, it's great for everyone.'