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Scorecard
June 08, 1998
Sports Marketing Shaq Needs a New Shoe
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June 08, 1998

Scorecard

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Sports Marketing
Shaq Needs a New Shoe

As recently as two years ago signing a shoe endorsement deal was a rite of passage for a new pro athlete, like getting the diamond-stud earring and the Lexus. Now the slumping sneaker industry is undergoing a lace-tightening so stunning that even Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal could be shopping for a new shoe deal when his current five-year, $15 million Reebok contract expires on June 30.

"We wouldn't pay him even half a million," says a rival sneaker company executive, who says Shaq faces long odds of landing a deal with Adidas, which already has Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, or Fila, which has hung its marketing on Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill. Converse? Sales of its basketball shoes are down 50%, and it has little money to throw around. Nike? O'Neal irked executives there when he was coming out of college by visiting Nike headquarters to hear the company's pitch wearing Reebok gear. "Would we be interested in Mr. O'Neal now?" says Jackie Thomas, a Nike marketing executive. "I'm laughing, I'm laughing...."

Along with Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith—whom Reebok cut in February for a $1 million buyout fee—O'Neal is the biggest name caught in the sneaker industry's about-face. Three years ago Reebok had 130 NBA players under contract; next season they'll have about 20. Reebok has also chainsawed its rosters in football (from 550 to 100) and baseball (from 280 to 140). Adidas, Converse and Fila never collected athletes the way Nike and Reebok did, but even Nike is trimming its stable. It won't release exact numbers, but it recently told 30 NBA players that their deals will switch from guaranteed money to performance-based payments next year.

Plummeting sales aren't the only reason most players will now have to settle for free shoes. In the late 1980s sneaker boom, sales generated by athlete-endorsers weren't as important to a shoe company as the cachet bought by "branding" as many players as possible with its logo. Now the feeling is that the large number of athlete-endorsers has created marketplace clutter.

Arrogant, occasionally criminal behavior by athletes has created misgivings, too. Says Howe Burch, vice president of sports marketing for Fila USA, "Kids aren't as inspired by athletes anymore." All of which has led the industry to reexamine, after more than a decade of lavish fees and frenzied marketing, its rationale for using sports figures as pitchmen. "At the end of the day," says Reebok spokesman Dave Fogelson, "it has to be, Are we selling shoes?"

Proposed Football League
A New Game in Town?

After announcing last week that they were "moving forward toward the creation" of a pro football league, NBC and Turner Sports (owned by Time Warner, SI's parent company) left unanswered almost every question about their proposed venture, from the starting date to the number of teams they aim to field to the most obvious one: Does America really need another football league? Both companies declined to comment, but one can safely surmise that a league founded by a TV network and a cable giant is going to be desperately viewer-friendly. Which got SI senior writer Peter King to musing on what we might be seeing in the summer (or fall) of 1999 (or 2000)....

It's halftime of the Turner Football League's playoff opener, and here in the home locker room at the Cotton Bowl, as Dallas Iguanas coach Ron Meyer blisters his troops, two cameras and a boom mike record his diatribe for NBC's national audience. Los Angeles Skyscrapers quarterback Vince Evans has raked Dallas for three touchdowns and a 21-10 lead, and the Iguanas—even league rushing leader Emmitt Smith, cut in a salary-cap purge by the NFL Cowboys—slither off the field to a chorus of boos.

When Dallas huddles for its first defensive play of the second half, captain Bill Bates steps over a cameraman lying on the ground, shooting into the huddle. "Don't give Evans time!" Bates yells, his voice caught by the mike in his shoulder pads.

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