This weekend, Michael Jordan entered the basketball Hall of Fame. Many feel that he is the best player to ever lace up a pair of basketball sneakers. With six championships, 10 NBA scoring titles, five league MVPs and two Olympic gold medals on his mantel, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve this honor. But, that’s something for fans to subjectively debate in years to come.
What can’t be argued though is how amazingly long His Airness’ marketing endorsement star has continued to brightly shine. Especially considering the fact that the man has been retired from the game he helped to make so popular for more than six years. That’s almost an eternity when it comes to the marketing staying power of this magnitude for celebrity endorsements.
For those old enough to remember, think back to March, 1985, when a sneaker company named Nike made the single smartest investment in its history by creating the Air Jordan basketball shoe. Remember those creatively artistic Spike Lee commercials? (“It’s got to be the shoe.”) Jordan’s universal appeal generated billions of $$$ in sales and fawned an entirely new industry of brands and products with his name and likeness on them, including sponsors such as Gatorade, Ball Park Franks, Ray-O-Vac, Wheaties, McDonald's, Upper Deck cards, as well as entire Nike Air Jordan apparel lines. Nike continued to ride the Jordan bandwagon for 12 more years when it finally launched the actual Jordan Brand to huge fanfare and success.
It’s easy to understand why he was so successful back then. Everyone wanted to “Be like Mike,” (as the 1990s Gatorade commercials so aptly showcased.)
Think about it. He was the first commercial superstar in a rising sport who represented everything our culture pushes us to be: Good looking, a supreme athlete, cool as ice, competitive beyond belief, charismatic and articulate, smart and funny, and most importantly- a winner (winning more games for more than a decade than anyone else.)
Today, Jordan is a mere memory for most. It’s sad to think that his greatness was entirely missed by today’s new generation of basketball and sports loving kids and teenagers. But, that makes no difference. He remains a marketing icon who still regularly appears on TV ads for such sponsors as Hanes underwear and Gatorade. And, Nike, PepsiCo and Upper Deck have all introduced products in recent months to commemorate Jordan’s NBA career in time for last weekend’s Hall of Fame ceremony. In fact, according to Nike, the Jordan Brand is now a $1 billion brand and still growing successfully.
Many of the most charismatic and successful retired sports celebrities continued to make money through endorsements, licensing and sponsorships long after their playing careers were over. There’s nothing novel about this fact. What’s extraordinary in the case of Michael Jordan is just how strong his magnetism still is, even as he settles well into middle age. Clearly, that famous Jordan smile certainly isn’t lost on companies looking to woo consumers.
Some may argue that players like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain or even Kobe Bryant should be considered greater than Jordan. (I happen to disagree.) But, it’s hard to believe that any other basketball player will ever have the timeless marketing appeal of this living legend.