Jordan’s ‘The Natural’ when it comes to commercials

High-flying on the court and charismatic off it, Michael Jordan made a lot of money – for himself, yes, but also for the National Basketball Association and corporate America.

His impact on sports business, though, goes beyond the dollars.

Before Michael Jordan, athletes peddled soft drinks and sneakers. After him, they could aspire to become brand names.

“No one before had ever had the combination of winning, charisma and marketing savvy that Michael Jordan brought to the table,” said Ray Clark, president of The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based sports consulting firm.

Jordan, 40, played his last NBA game April 16. Hanging up his Washington Wizards jersey, he leaves the league for sure this time, after two earlier retirements. He is hailed as the greatest player ever. No assessment of his legacy would be complete without mention of his impact off the court.

“He helped create a new era of sports marketing,” said David Carter, principal consultant in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group.

Jordan pitched at least a dozen products, from Hanes underwear to Gatorade sports drink. He put his name on sneakers, sportswear, a cologne and a New York steakhouse. He even starred in a movie with Bugs Bunny.

At his peak in the late 1990s, coming off six championships with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was raking in almost $50 million a year pitching products.

Another natural

Brad Thomas, who spent two decades as a Dallas sports marketing pro before moving on to real estate, described Jordan as an off-field version of “The Natural” when it came to selling.

“Some guys just have that personality, that aura, that look,” Thomas said. “He’s stylish. He had cool expressions. What made him special is he could project that image in an ad for just about anything you can think of.”

In some of those ads, Gatorade invited America to “Be Like Mike.” A new generation of athletes – and their handlers – went to school on Jordan, repeating his success in creating an image based on winning with style.

Think Tiger Woods.

Think Venus and Serena Williams.

“They all look at what Michael has done and the money Michael received,” said Rick Burton, executive director of the University of Oregon’s James Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

Long tradition

The commercialization of sports stars goes back to the days of Babe Ruth, and even earlier. But Carter argues that timing, not just Jordan’s winning personality, made the 6-foot-6 guard such a phenomenon after he arrived in the NBA in 1984.

“He came at the ideal time,” Carter said. “He came at a time when corporate America had begun to appreciate sports marketing and invest a lot of money in it.”

The right partnerships mattered, too.

“He was working with great companies that knew how to market,” Thomas said. “They allowed him to work with the best agencies.”

Nike Inc., for example, hooked up Jordan with director Spike Lee.

“Michael understood that the nature of the advertising was as important as what he was paid,” Burton said. “He made sure he appeared in advertising that made him likeable.”

It’s hard to imagine Jordan emerging as an advertising icon without Nike. The Oregon-based athletic shoe and apparel company signed Jordan to one of his first off-court deals in 1984, then created the Air Jordan line of basketball shoes around the budding superstar’s swooping and soaring style of play.

“Could Nike be where it is today without Jordan?” Carter said. “Where would Jordan be without Nike? They were a perfect fit.”

A brand of his own

In time, Jordan became such a powerful sales tool that Nike created a stand-alone Jordan brand, complete with its own logo, product lines and endorsement deals. The Dallas Mavericks’ star Michael Finley gets paid to wear Jordan shoes.

In retirement, Jordan will probably continue to possess marketing pizzazz. “His legacy isn’t finished,” Burton said. “He’s going to be a brand name for years to come.”

During time, though, the mystique may well fade as companies turn to fresh faces in the sports world. Woods, for example, has already eclipsed Jordan as the kingpin of endorsement deals, with more than $60 million a year.

“All brands have a shelf life, and Michael Jordan is no different,” Clark said. “He’s seen highs and lows in his brand value, and that brand value will decrease as he no longer performs and wins on the court. It won’t go away, but it will decrease.”