Can Oden Be a Big Man on Madison Avenue?

Hoops Phenom Makes Industry Rounds, but His Size and Scowl Could Limit Ad Appeal

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CHICAGO ( -- Spike Lee looks incredulous.

The Lilliputian actor/director is looking up -- straight up -- at 7-foot-tall, 19-year-old basketball prodigy Greg Oden, trying to make small talk after a chance meeting in Omnicom Group's Madison Avenue lobby.
Greg Oden
Greg Oden Credit: Kathy Willens

"I'm just glad you didn't sign with Adidas," joked Mr. Lee, who directed and starred in some of the best known Nike ads ever made.

"Why don't you like Adidas?" Nike's newest endorser innocently inquired.

"Because it's gotta be the shoes!" exclaimed Mr. Lee, reprising the Mars Blackmon character he created in 1986, two years before Mr. Oden's birth. "Of course I don't like Adidas!"

Playing catch-up
Mr. Oden -- whose talents have drawn comparisons to basketball greats Bill Russell and Tim Duncan -- obviously still has a lot to learn about marketing. But in the days leading up to his selection by the Portland Trailblazers as the first pick in the June 28 NBA Draft, he reached out to the ad world by touring agencies and even chatting up Donny Deutsch on TV, making it clear he intends to catch up.

Mr. Oden, who led Ohio State University to the NCAA Final Four during his one year in college, has already proved a formidable sports endorser, landing "tools of the trade" deals with Nike, Spalding, Topps and Take Two Interactive, as well as a partnership with Raymond Weil that landed him a few new watches.

But those endorsements aren't exactly in LeBron James territory. Mr. Oden's rookie contract compares favorably with the NBA's most recent rookie superstar. Portland will pay him $3.8 million for the first year and $4.1 million for the second. The Cleveland Cavaliers paid Mr. James $4.3 million for his first year and $4.6 for his second. But Mr. James had already signed endorsement deals worth more than $100 million before getting drafted -- $90 million of that for a seven-year deal with Nike. And that was before Mr. James set the goal of turning himself into a billion-dollar brand. According to someone familiar with the matter, Mr. Oden's endorsement deals total $4 million to $5 million annually, but are likely to rise.

And sports-marketing experts say that getting significant endorsements beyond traditional sports categories for Mr. Oden could prove tricky, and not just because he'll be playing home games in the West Coast time zone in one of the league's smallest markets.

Tall order
Marketers generally have been reluctant to invest heavily in 7-footers, who most consumers have a hard time relating to or aspiring to be like, except in cases of unique demographic appeal (Yao Ming) or exceptional charisma (Shaquille O'Neal).

On the court, at least, Mr. Oden does not project much of the latter. He tends to assume a deadpan, hangdog expression that, coupled with deep wrinkles that make him appear older than he is, create the impression that he is either aloof or annoyed.

During meetings at Omnicom Group and BBDO leading up to the draft, Mr. Oden tended to wear that same expression, and rarely spoke, as he listened intently to advice from executives and tried to make sense of an organizational chart mapping out duties on Omnicom's 25-largest clients.

But his charisma -- and wide smile -- tended to emerge once the meetings were over, such as when he giddily passed his cellphone around an elevator to show off a text message he had received from ESPN sideline reporter/sex symbol Erin Andrews, followed by a bounding, clownish strut into the lobby when the doors opened.

"That's the side of Greg we want people to get to know," said Bill Sanders, VP-player marketing at BDA Sports Management, which represents Mr. Oden, as well as other NBA stars including Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets.

Reaching out
Mr. Sanders said he is pushing Mr. Oden to gradually reach out to fans and build awareness of himself before trying to secure endorsements beyond the shoes, cards and games variety that he has already netted. Mr. Oden's blog on, which provided an earnest accounting of the days surrounding the draft, is a key facet of that outreach, as are plans to be active in the Portland community -- which has been plagued by basketball-player malfeasance in recent years -- once he gets there.

"He's going to focus on building up that fan loyalty first," said Mr. Sanders. "We're not going to pitch him to McDonald's -- yet."

BBDO President-CEO John Osborn, who met with Mr. Oden before the draft, and even faced off against him in an abbreviated game of pingpong (Mr. Oden won, 3-2), said Mr. Oden has the potential to be an appealing endorser once he loosens up a bit.

"What's interesting about him is that he has a gentleness, humility and humbleness to him that's unexpected," Mr. Osborn said. "He's just got to stay out of trouble and let that personality come out so people can see it.

"He's a good kid, even if he doesn't look like a kid."
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