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"Ashe may have been the pioneer," says Lee Fentress, managing director of Advantage International, which represents Robinson. Two other names frequently cited for breaking ground in the endorsement field for today's black athletes are O.J. Simpson (Hertz) and Julius Erving (Converse). Says Fentress, "The lack of endorsement opportunities may not have been racial as much as a recognition of who the consumer is. Eighty percent of this country is white." However, corporate America wasn't convinced that the white consumer could be appealed to by a black spokesperson. Even at the height of his popularity, Ashe's endorsement income was "six figures, never seven," he says. "I was half a generation away from that."
Three things happened during that half generation that helped to open the corporate coffers to African-American athletes: 1) Basketball cleaned up its image; 2) Johnson and Jordan came to the NBA with NCAA championships and engaging personas; and 3) Nike had success using Jordan as a pitchman.
But there has been another, more subtle, reason for white America's new and unprecedented trust in and adoration of black athletes. "I do think there's been a kind of general, abstract improvement in race relations in this country, more of a willingness to recognize merit," says Marvin Bressler, chairman of the sociology department at Princeton. "A white guy sitting in a bar in Detroit acknowledges that Jordan should make more money than John Paxson, and commercial endorsements are seen as part of the rewards for athletic merit. Some sense of fairness exists that now includes black people and formerly didn't. But does that white guy on the stool necessarily regard the black man on the street as any less threatening? I don't think so."
It is no coincidence that basketball players dominate the endorsement field today. Only five players are on the floor for a team at a time, so they are easily identified and recognized. And it certainly doesn't hurt that they perform close to the spectators, their features and bodies unobscured by helmets and neck-to-ankle uniforms. "You feel you can almost touch them," says Charles Grantham, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. "A few years ago the NBA was perceived on Madison Avenue as being too black and too drug-infested. Once that was turned around, the league was able to promote its new personalities as exciting stars who were caring and concerned about their communities."
Hence there is a plethora of ads, sponsored both by the league and by companies, urging youngsters to stay in school and off drugs. These are messages white America wants to hear, and the hope is that the subliminal goodwill they return to the messengers, to the game and, in turn, to the products the messengers promote will be powerful stuff.
"The guys you're talking about—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, David Robinson—are outstanding people, and when you put that together with their talent, it doesn't matter what color they are," says Grantham. "But that type of athlete wasn't created yesterday. Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Gale Sayers and Willie Stargell were all personable guys. But the time was not right. It took companies that were willing to step up and be associated with black athletes—and the shoe companies deserve credit for that. They were the first ones to put superstar players out there as spokesmen. But they weren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Companies are motivated by profit and loss, and it was, pure and simple, good business. And as soon as other companies realized these young stars could sell products, they all jumped on board."
It is not so farfetched to say that Jordan-mania was launched by the promotional efforts of a shoe company. "The main reason Jordan took off is he had the good sense to sign with Nike," says Peter Johnson of International Management Group, another sports management firm. "If he'd signed with shoe company XYZ, who knows what would have happened." Adds Fentress, "Nike, to a large extent, created Michael Jordan."
In 1985, the year Nike debuted its Air Jordan line, the company's basketball-shoe sales rose by $28 million, to $153 million, and by 1990 they had risen to $500 million. Says Peter Johnson, "Jordan was then able to go to other companies and say, 'See what I've done for Nike. I sell product. I can help your company.' It had a domino effect. Then Jordan's success enhanced Magic's. It's only been in the last few years that Magic was able to get those national deals with Pepsi and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And I think he wasn't able to do that earlier because he was black. Now they see that Magic can sell products too."
David Falk, Jordan's lawyer at ProServ, stops short of giving Nike full credit for Jordan's early success as a pitchman, although he does allow that "Nike jump-started a lot of his endorsement activity. And the nickname Air Jordan defined Jordan's persona. But Michael already had a national following. He was able to demand his own shoe the day he got out of college."
There was nothing unique in that, however. Walt Frazier had a shoe named after him long before anyone had even heard of Jordan. There was even a Ralph Sampson line of sneakers. What made the Air Jordans take off was the multifaceted assault of Jordan's spectacular playing style, the uniqueness of the original shoe (which was banned by the NBA because of its color scheme) and the marketing clout of Nike's witty and with-it advertisements, some of which were directed by Spike Lee. Doyouknow? Doyouknow? Doyouknow?