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Past star presenters 1992: Candice Bergen 1991: John Cleese 1990: Ray Charles 1989: Bo Jackson 1988: Wilford Brimley JORDAN STILL KING OF AD PRESENTER GAME

By Published on .

Sports marketing reporters, quit speculating.

Advertisers, stop combing the sports pages for the next superstar with a 30 point-per-game average and a Pepsodent smile.

Finally, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan's endorsement throne has been found!

It isn't Shaquille O'Neal. That rap stuff doesn't sell hamburgers, big guy. And it isn't Nancy Kerrigan. She's too corny.

Nope, the new Michael Jordan is (DRUM ROLL PLEASE!) ... Michael Jordan.

Yes, six months after his retirement from the National Basketball Association-a move many industry soothsayers predicted would doom his $32 million-a-year endorsement career-Mr. Jordan remains king of the sports celebrity mountain. He's still pitching for McDonald's Corp., Nike and Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade in high-profile, high-concept national ad efforts.

Mr. Jordan's durability is only one reason Advertising Age has named him 1993's Star Presenter. In fact, the honor leaps beyond the many ads he appeared in last year, a mixed bag of classic campaigns (Nike's "What If I Was Just a Basketball Player" from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and McDonald's Corp.'s "Showdown" with Larry Bird from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago), gaudy excess (Jordan and Bugs Bunny on Mars? Hello? Earth to Nike ...) and utter nonsense (Would Jordan really jump that high for Sara Lee Corp.'s Ball Park hot dog? Would anyone?).

Instead, consider it a lifetime achievement award. For Mr. Jordan's 1993 retirement underscored his contributions not only to the NBA but to all of sports marketing.

"Michael Jordan's superhuman skill on-court and personality off-court helped dramatically to build additional audiences for the NBA," said David Schreff, NBA Properties VP-general manager of marketing. "And in terms of sports marketing and endorsements, he has set a standard that will take some time for anyone to reach again."

Put more succinctly:

"He sold a hell of a lot of tickets and put a lot of money in other people's pockets," said Alan Friedman, editor of Chicago-based Team Marketing Report. "He's another Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He'll be around forever."

Mr. Jordan said: "I want to thank Advertising Age for this prestigious award. It is especially gratifying to be recognized for breaking down traditional barriers in advertising and for opening the window of opportunity for today's generation of athletes."

Mr. Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. He entered the NBA in the midst of a renaissance, at a time when the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and, perhaps most importantly, Commissioner David Stern were leading the league out of the Dark Ages fraught with management-player squabbles and image-tarnishing drug abuse.

But the Air Jordan phenomenon really didn't take off until the late '80s, when the Bulls began winning playoffs and championships, and when Nike paired Mr. Jordan with Spike Lee and Gatorade got America humming with "Be Like Mike."

"We had a game plan when we started out, but we had no idea opportunities existed on this level," said David Falk, Mr. Jordan's attorney and marketing agent. "Michael wasn't manufactured; he reached his level of marketability by being who he is and by his play."

When Mr. Falk shopped his client around as a rookie, he wasn't looking for mere endorsement deals but long-term commitments to spend media dollars on Mr. Jordan and use him as a vehicle to drive sales.

Mr. Falk said companies were reluctant at first. Such deals were reserved for white athletes in upscale, individual sports, like golf and tennis, not those in team sports-and not African-Americans.

Still, marketers like Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's and Wilson Sporting Goods saw enough potential to sign Mr. Jordan to long-term deals early on.

Chicago area marketers were quick to tap the budding superstar, as well. In recent years, Mr. Jordan has appeared in several witty spots for Chicagoland Chevrolet Dealers, via Eisaman, Johns & Laws.

But it was Nike that proved Michael Jordan could be used to build brands and make millions of dollars. Nike structured its basketball shoe business around him and launched prime-time ad campaigns.

Still, it was a slow build.

"We wanted to create a slow burn around Michael," said Scott Bedbury, Nike advertising director. "It was three or four years before Michael uttered his first words in a Nike spot. And by that time, with the Spike Lee commercials, we had created a myth around Michael but not from Michael."

A decade of advertising from Wieden and Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., and eight generations of Air Jordans later, Nike now owns half of the basketball shoe market.

The next challenge is how to market a now-retired (from basketball) Mr. Jordan, whose sponsor deals won't expire until the year 2000. Each provided for the possibility of his retirement.

"Michael doesn't need to play to stay marketable," Mr. Falk said, "but clearly, we and his sponsors have to come up with creative ways to use him."

And while Mr. Jordan's baseball aspirations may seem an obvious hook, many companies are holding off. They're either not willing to exploit Mr. Jordan's every athletic endeavor or just waiting to see how serious he is about baseball.

There are those who believe Mr. Jordan's success can be duplicated. But if the troubled relationship between Reebok International and Shaquille O'Neal is any indication (AA, Feb. 21), Mr. Jordan's success can't be reduced to a formula.

"It's an evolutionary process. You can't market a player with a manufactured image ... consumers see right through that," Mr. Falk said. "Athletes shouldn't try to be `the next Michael Jordan.' The challenge for them is to not `Be Like Mike,' but be something different. Something new.'

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