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There is at least one major advantage to an "endorsement" or commercial "appearance" by a dead athlete rather than a live one: There is no danger that the deal will be sullied by, say, a labor stoppage or a drug bust.
"They're not going to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons," Roesler says of athletes who are out of action—permanently. "You can count on them."
It was in 1984 that Curtis made its move—albeit tentatively—into sports. "There's a big difference between entertainment and sports," Roesler says. "With entertainment figures, we knew we had potential throughout the world. With sports, we would be limited primarily to the U.S. I thought there was a need to protect the names and images of sports figures from unauthorized use. The question was: Could we make more money than we spent doing that?"
The way Roesler saw it, Ruth is among the greatest sports legends of all, so Curtis began a computer search to locate the Babe's surviving relatives. He found two daughters, Dorothy Pirone (who has since died) and Stevens, and arranged to meet with them in Florida.
"No one had ever approached either one of us with anything like this," says Stevens, who was living comfortably but modestly on Social Security payments and her father's estate. "I said, 'Well, it all sounds very nice,' but I really didn't think that much about it."
Until the checks started arriving in 1985. "A real gift from heaven," Stevens says. "It started out around $5,000 the first year. And it went up steadily, up to six figures two years ago. If you want to include the first few years, which were much slower, I would say it has probably averaged between $50,000 and $75,000 a year. Just my part."
After Curtis takes its cut—60% or so—the Ruth income is divided three ways among Stevens, her late sister's five children and the Babe Ruth Baseball League Inc., a youth baseball program.
Roesler sees the day—not far off, he says—when the blending of old footage and new scenes will create an entire genre of commercials in which his sports legends appear to be interacting with contemporary actors. Such a commercial has already been made for Diet Coke with film footage of Bogart, who seems to be mingling with a 1990s crowd.
Most of sports marketing still hangs on the here and now, but it appears that the throwbacks have also claimed a permanent niche. "Everybody wants the new guys to be more like the old guys," says John Stote III, vice president of Anaconda Sports, a large sporting-goods distributor that has its own memorabilia division and is a Ruth licensee. "They used to play baseball just to play baseball. Now it's all lawyers, the portable phones in the dugout, some guy making three million a year who can't play because he has a little tape wrapped around his pinkie."
Cobb, Gehrig, Lombardi, Owens and Thorpe (not necessarily in that order) follow Ruth as the most profitable dead sports clients, Roesler says. But he and family members of the late greats emphasize that income is not their only interest. Equally important, they say, is maintaining control of the departed's name and image. Curtis provides legal assistance to protect against unauthorized use of these, and before any deal involving a dead athlete is made, the company usually seeks input from surviving relatives.