By Jan. 24, the day of Ismail's announcement, Team Rocket was in place and was facing its first major decision: Should the team retain a marketing specialist? Edwards, the litigator, was originally of the opinion that endorsement offers would simply flow in. But in a phone conversation with Wiley, ProServ's Jerry Solomon and David Falk, who represent 150 athletes, including Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Boomer Esiason, argued that such an assumption would be a costly mistake. When ProServ takes on a client, they insist on representing all of the athlete's interests. But, having lost out to Morcom for the rights to negotiate Ismail's NFL contract, ProServ was willing to make an exception for Rocket. So they hammered home their message to Wiley: Athletic excellence does not translate automatically into mega-endorsements. Recalling his conversation with Wiley, Falk ticks off some grim examples: "Notre Dame had a pretty good kick returner three years ago, but we haven't really seen much of Tim Brown since. Walter Payton went almost his entire career without getting on television. It took Magic 10 years to get a name shoe!"
Team Rocket agreed to take a meeting with ProServ. For 2½ hours on a recent Sunday evening, in a suite at the Chicago O'Hare Hyatt, Solomon and Falk inundated Ismail, Wiley and Edwards with charts, storyboards and a six-minute video. The video included a testimonial to the firm from Jordan and also featured football footage of Ismail against the background voice of a NASA launch countdown. The ProServ pair had no way of knowing that Ismail's room at Notre Dame is wallpapered with posters of Jordan—11 in all. While watching the video, the 21-year-old Ismail found himself fighting off feelings of awe.
"At times, I'd think, 'Wow, that's me!' " Ismail recalls. "But I had a course last semester called Brand Advertising, and this was exactly what we'd learned about. It was a textbook presentation. I just had to keep reminding myself it was business."
Edwards earned his fee that evening. Solomon and Falk desperately wanted to get Ismail's signature that day, before they flew back to Washington, D.C. They would have gotten it, too, Ismail later admitted, had Edwards not been there. But Edwards told the ProServ people, "We'll get back to you." Four days later, after smoothing over a gnarly disagreement over finances—ProServ had initially wanted the standard 20% cut of any endorsements it lined up for Ismail, but it finally settled for less than half of that amount—the agency was invited aboard.
Solomon and Falk love everything about Ismail: his drop-dead nickname, his "wholesomeness," his "familiarity and favorability," the fact that he is "handsome and articulate." And though Ismail will be leaving school to play pro ball after he completes the spring semester, they intend to play up his "studiousness."
"He's very determined to graduate from Notre Dame," says Solomon. "It's extremely important to him. In fact, one of the things we've talked about is setting up a scholarship fund in the Newark area, where he grew up."
Falk says that it's too early to talk about specific endorsements. Then, in the next breath, he cites ProServ's cozy relationship with athletic-shoe and soft-drink companies, a restaurant chain, a breakfast cereal, an underwear manufacturer.
"Unlimited" is how both Falk and Solomon sum up Ismail's marketing potential. "It's rare for someone coming out of college to have such a highly defined persona," says Falk. "Michael's persona is of a flyer, a dunker, someone who plays above the rim. Ismail's is of someone speedy, elusive, nifty and, at the same time, of someone reassuringly ordinary." While his wondrous athletic skills are comparable to Jordan's, kids love Ismail because, at 5'10", he has some Mars Blackmon in him too.
ProServ wants to move quickly. Says Falk, "So much of this game is momentum." Solomon adds, "We're looking for companies that aren't going to just pay him a lot of money, then put him on a shelf. We want companies that will use him actively in their campaigns."
One detects in the members of Team Rocket a powerful desire to make a fast killing. And with good reason. There is no shortage of former high NFL draft picks whose careers never measured up to the hype that originally attended them. Yes, Ismail has the talent to be next season's Rookie of the Year. He might also be merely a special-teams player who gets to touch the ball only twice a game and, in marketing terms, falls off the face of the earth. Or he could suffer a career-ending injury. (And where have you gone, Brian Bosworth?)