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There was a scene in the 1989 movie "Do The Right Thing" in which a young white bigot was asked to reconcile his racist tirades with the fact that Magic Johnson was his favorite basketball player and Eddie Murphy his favorite movie star. "Let me explain myself," he huffed. "They're black, but they're not really black. They're more than black. It's different."
They're crossovers. That's the marketing term the young man may have been groping for. It refers to minority figures whose popularity cuts across racial lines. Spike Lee, who wrote and directed Do the Right Thing, could as easily have substituted Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby as the white character's favorite stars, or Bo Jackson and Arsenio Hall. Crossovers all. And, to paraphrase a conversation that once took place between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: Crossovers are different from you and me; they have more money.
Crossovers are white-hot these days in the eyes of marketing gurus and product manufacturers, and the result is that a few African-American sports stars have been able to parlay talent and magnetism into endorsement deals worth sums undreamed of by the top black athletes of a generation ago. Leading the way is Jordan, who in 1991 will rake in an estimated $15 million to $20 million from Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Wheaties, Wilson Sporting Goods, Chevrolet, Hanes, the Illinois State Lottery and other sources, surpassing the endorsement income of the erstwhile king, Arnold Palmer. The skinny on Jordan was that he would leave Coke when his contract expired on Wednesday and sign another monster deal—$18 million over several years, according to Advertising Age—to swig Gatorade for Quaker Oats.
Johnson is raking it in too, having traded his good name and winning smile to Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Converse, Campofrio (a Spanish meat company), Nintendo and Spalding, among others, for some $12 million this year. And Bo knows a good deal when he sees one: He is hawking for Nike, AT&T, Pepsi and Cramer Products even while sidelined and undergoing rehab for a football injury. George Foreman (Nike), Charles Barkley (Nike, Gillette) and Rickey Henderson (Pepsi, Rolaids) have all been featured recently on national TV ads. What gives? As rising pitchman David Robinson (Nike, Casio watches, Franklin sporting goods, Brock Candy and, as Jordan's reported replacement, Coke) might have said in one of his Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood ads: "Today's word is color-blind."
Or so says Madison Avenue. "The public, especially young people, is color-blind in terms of its athletic heroes," says David Green, senior vice-president in charge of marketing for McDonald's, whose Chicago-area stores took the unprecedented step last spring of naming a hamburger—the McJordan—after its most recognized sports spokesman. "They look at these guys as great athletes who do superhuman things. They don't look at color at all."
"When it comes to soft drinks, the American consumer is color-blind," says Pepsi spokesman Gary Gerdemann. "If Magic only appealed to black audiences, we'd have to reevaluate him. But there's no question that his popularity and credibility cross racial lines."
Sports has long had crossovers. Even before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Wilma Rudolph and Ernie Banks, to name but a few, were embraced, to a degree, by white America. But until Jordan arrived on the scene, only a handful of African-American athletes were able to parlay their multiracial popularity into anything more bankable than goodwill. Hank Aaron recalls that when he was named National League Most Valuable Player in '57, he wasn't approached by a single company. "The only time that really happened was in '74, when I hit the home run [that broke Babe Ruth's career record]," says Aaron. "I got a big contract with Magnavox for $1 million—five years for $200,000 per year. And I had a lot of little contracts. Even so, I did something—alltime home run leader, alltime RBI leader—that should have made me eight or nine million dollars."
It might have done just that if it had happened in 1991—although, as Roger Maris also discovered when he cracked 61 home runs in '61 to erase the Babe's single-season record, surpassing the achievements of one of the most popular figures in American sport is no way to gain entrance into the hearts of the nation. Particularly for a man of Aaron's brooding demeanor. "I would have thought he'd have had problems," says Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon champion of '75 and one of the earliest black athletes to earn significant income from endorsement deals. "Aaron didn't have that Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard smile. It's not necessarily true that the better an athlete you are, the more money you make."
Ashe, who like Jordan is represented by ProServ, the Washington, D.C.-based sports management and marketing firm, benefited in the 1970s from the fact that tennis is an international sport. Most of his endorsement income came from shoe, racket and apparel companies, which aimed for global markets. For example, his shoe and clothing contract in '78 was with Le Coq Sportif, a subsidiary of the German company Adidas. "Over there, the race of athletes is not a serious issue," says Ashe. "Yannick Noah is huge in France. He's been unbelievably well commercialized. Had he been an American black, he never would have been as commercially established at home. Evonne Goolagong, who is Australian but would be characterized as black if she had been born in this country, had her own signature line of clothes with Scars, Roebuck. I know of no black American woman with that sort of commercial exposure here."
Two decades ago, U.S. companies were extremely reluctant to try to appeal to white consumers through black spokesmen. Ashe recalls that in 1971 the Head Ski company, after much internal debate, decided to market an Arthur Ashe model tennis racket. "A lot of the retail outlets were in the South, and there was some concern that eyebrows would be raised and Head would lose a lot of orders," says Ashe. "They were pretty resigned to it, but as it turned out, less than half a dozen shops canceled on us. Twenty-one years later, I'm still with them."