Athlete Endorsements / Big Dollars


April 2, 2016

The Tennis World was shocked when Tennis’ reigning glamour queen and the highest paid female player, Maria Sharapova was suspended for taking Meldonium, a drug that has recently been banned by Tennis.

It is a drug that she took openly for ten years without repercussions. When confronted, without hesitation she admitted her guilt. The notification of the ban was sent in an e-mail at the start of 2016 to all Pro Tennis players. A hearing is set for later this year and she possibly will be missing Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the meantime.

Maria is the highest paid female athlete in the world and the commercial fallout was swift. Nike, one of her longtime sponsors announced in a statement that it was suspending its relationship with her “while the investigation continues”.  Her clothing line with Nike, with whom she signed an eight-year extension in 2010, is reported to be worth up to $70 million.

Ever since the days when I worked for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, corporate monies spent on endorsements and sponsorships have always intrigued me. It was the 1950’s and Gillette was by far the dominant advertiser in sports.

Gillette had the radio rights (there was no TV), to all the major Boxing events and the fights were on the air every Friday night.

In addition, the company sponsored all the Football Bowl games.

In those days there were only four— The Rose, The Sugar, The Orange and the Cotton. In addition, they were the name sponsor for the Triple Crown of Racing— The Kentucky Derby, plus the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. They implemented this sponsorship with in store displays and massive promotions including giveaways tied into each event.

So, I decided it might be interesting and fun to look at sponsorships and endorsements over the years.

Rather than lucrative endorsement deals, the athletes in ancient times were rewarded with statues, songs, poems and drawings.

Theagnes of Thaos was a Greek Boxer won more than 1300 matches during his 22 year career. Leonidas of Rhodes who won wreaths in three categories at the Olympic games of 164, 160, 156 and 152 Olympic Games. He competed in sprints, as well as the hoplitodromos.

Of course, everyone knows that  “hoplito”  (whatever it was called), was a  race in which the contestants ran in a helmet, armor and carried a shield. Theagnes won 12 individual Gold Medals, the most ever by an Olympic athlete…one more than Michael Phelps.

When it came to monetary reward, Gaius Appuleius Diocles won and received 35,63,120 sesterces in prize earnings.

Today, that amounts to over 15 billion dollars. The figure was recorded on a statue in Rome by fellow race competitors and admirers in 146 A.D., which hails him as  “ CHAMPION OF ALL CHARIOTERS”. Today, some athletes are still honored with statues in front of the Arenas where they once competed.

The Sneaker Industry, to help sell their products,  utilized known athletes from all walks of sport to influence purchases of their products.  Converse Rubber first came out with the Chuck Taylor All-Stars in 1932. Today, over 90 years later, it sill remains the iconic Sneaker design.

So much so, it has been estimated that 60% of all Americans will own at least one pair in their lifetime. It continues to be reinvented by each generation.

Ironically, Michael Jordan was a self-styled Adidas fanatic since high school. He wanted to sign with Adidas, but was never offered an endorsement deal. So, after some real salesmanship by Nike CEO Phil Knight, he opted to sign with Nike instead.

The Jordan 1sneaker was released in 1985.  It’s color scheme was Red and Black to match the colors of the Chicago Bulls uniform. Commissioner David Stern banned the usage of the shoes, because they didn’t have enough white.

Despite the ban, MJ continued to constantly wear the shoe and was fined each time.  Nike paid his fines. The Jordan 1 grossed $130 million that year and MJ was the most valuable player.

In  2012, the Jordan Brand controlled 58% of the basketball shoe market and is widely considered the elite brand for basketball footwear and apparel.

The Adidas Stan Smith is widely considered the most iconic tennis show ever. In the late 1960’s the Van Doren Rubber Company was founded in Anaheim, California. Skaters began skating in “Vans” shoes because the “non-slip” soles allowed for better board grip.

In 1975, skateboard legends Tony hawk and Stacy Peralta designed the “Vans ERA. Vans created the skateboard shoe. Based on their worldwide success, countless other brands were inspired to design skating shoes.

Many of the most popular brands in  footwear can attribute part of their success to the athletes who endorse their products.

Honus Wagner, one of the finest all around players in baseball history, sometimes considered the greatest shortstop in baseball history, was the first professional athlete to receive money for allowing the use of his name on a product.

While playing for the Louisville Colonels, he befriended Hillerich of Hillerich and Bradley who in 1894 had begun producing the Louisville Slugger bat.  For many ballplayers of the day, the company engraved players names on the bats,  so there wouldn’t be confusion in dugouts.

In 1905, Wagner signed a long term endorsement deal with H & B.  This deal allowed the company to sell their bats in retail stores. Wagner, is also notorious for his American Tobacco Issued baseball card. In 2007 a rare Wagner card sold at auction for $2.8 million, then  a record price.

The longest running endorsement deal was made in1922 by golfer Gene Sarazen when he became the first member of the Wilson Sporting Goods Advisory Staff.  He debuted his Sarazen Club at the 1932 British Open which he won. This marked the introduction of the Sand Wedge which he designed.

Sarazen’s long-term deal inspired other lengthy such deals as the one that Soccer great David Beckham signed with Adidas.

It may come as a surprise to today’s generation that the first million dollar endorsement deal went to professional Bowler Don Carter… not to a football, basketball, baseball, soccer, or hockey player.  Back in the 1950’s and ‘60s, Bowling was America’s hobby with millions of families enjoying the sport each week.

Carter was the “Bowler of the Year” six times.  In 1967, Bowling Ball manufacturer Ebonite capitalized on his popularity and launched the Don Carter Gyro-Balanced ball.

Athlete endorsement have proven to be most effective when the product is actually used by the athlete in his/her sport. Although, athletes have long endorsed other products.

Babe Didrickson, long considered America’s, greatest female athlete,(Olympic Gold Medalist, Professional Golfer, Softball and basketball standout) endorsed Dodge Cars and Wheaties Cereals in 1933.

Her endorsements paved the way for today’s female athletes like Danica Patrick (Auto Racing) and Serena Williams (Tennis) et al.

Soccer great Pele endorsed Louis Vuitton luxury bags.

Baseball’s Mickey Mantle hawked Timex Watches… Christy Mathewson sold John Hancock Insurance… Babe Ruth pitched Tobacco… the entire 1933 World Series Champion New York Giants team sold Camel Cigarettes… Yogi Berra spoke for Yoohoo Chocolate Drink … Joe DiMaggio, his teammate, pitched coffee maker “Mr. Coffee.”

Football’s Frank Gifford talked in behalf of Lucky Strike cigarettes while Washington Redskin’s great quarterback “Slinging” Sammy Baugh was featured in many Gillette Commercials.

Today, through the popularity of the electronic media, hundreds of products and commercials bear the stamp of well-known athletes.  Payton Manning, for example sells among other things, Buick Cars and Insurance.

This blog is not long enough to name all the active endorsements in today’s world. Believe me when I tell you it’s a lengthy list.

Hell, I bought my new Buick Encore, because I saw Payton Manning driving one and talking about its assets.

Ah, me!