He's Still Got Game

Michael Jordan out of our lives? That's rich. It's not like the Air has gone out of his financial empire. He's just changing shoes.

January 13, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

On the 6 o'clock news, the sports guy was getting all weepy about Michael Jordan, to the point where you wondered if Jordan was retiring today or had been pushed under a train.

After showing the requisite highlight videos of the Chicago Bulls superstar, accompanied by a maudlin, Barbra Streisand-ish musical score, the sports guy intoned somberly: "Michael, we'll never forget you."

Forget him? How could we forget him?

We'll see him every day for the rest of our lives.

We'll see him every time we turn on the TV and he's flacking for Nike, or McDonald's, or Gatorade, or WorldCom.

We'll see him on Wheaties boxes, and on display ads for Ray-o-Vac batteries and Hanes underwear and Ballpark Franks.

We'll see him every time we go into our 16-year-old's room, where a bottle of Michael Jordan Cologne occupies a prominent spot on the dresser. (The most god-awful fragrance on the planet. Makes the Hai Karate we splashed on in the '70s smell like a dozen roses.)

We'll see him in the movies, for God's sake. ("Space Jam" was not exactly "The Godfather," but can "Space Jam II" be far behind?)

Forget Michael Jordan?

Please.

I have a better chance of forgetting my wife and kids.

If he does retire as expected today at a news conference at Chicago's United Center, Jordan's place in history is assured.

As a basketball player, he's generally acknowledged as the greatest of all time. The image of No. 23 swooping to the basket, the ball held in his outstretched hand, a determined look in his eyes, his tongue wagging furiously, is etched in the mind of anyone who ever watched him play.

Yet as a cultural icon and relentless corporate pitchman, Jordan is equally without peer.

Fortune magazine estimates that Michael Jordan's name has generated $10 billion in revenues to date.

And as Rick Welts, executive vice president and chief marketer for the National Basketball Association, told Fortune: "If Michael leaves, he leaves having changed the public's view of what role an athlete can play in society -- how they can be viewed, how they can be used by corporations, how they can be social icons."

Retirement, apparently, does not hurt icons, social or otherwise, nor the products they endorse.

This past summer, Nike Inc. vice president Larry Mills told the Los Angeles Times: "The fact that [Jordan] may or may not be playing ball will not have a major impact on the business."

Forget the money -- although it's hard to forget that Jordan stood to make $36 million from the Bulls this season and more than $40 million in endorsement deals. (Which works out to a total income of -- you may not want to hear this -- about $208,000 a day.)

The point is, Jordan transcended his sport in a way no other athlete, including the incomparable Muhammad Ali, ever has -- both here and around the world.

You worry, for instance, how the French will handle his retirement.

When Jordan and the Bulls arrived in France two years ago for the McDonald's World Championships, a headline in a Paris newspaper gushed: "The Idol of Young People Is in Paris!"

The start of the accompanying story was equally restrained: "Michael Jordan is in Paris. That's better than the pope. It's God in person."

And what will Jordan's retirement do to the poor Japanese? Will it play havoc with their already fragile economy?

In Japan, collecting Air Jordan basketball shoes is big business. Collectors pay thousands of dollars for vintage lines of the shoes, which are snapped up as soon as they go on sale.

With Jordan hanging 'em up, will the bottom fall out of the business with catastrophic results? Or will there be frenzied Air Jordan hoarding, propelling the market to new heights of prosperity?

A favorite example of the selling power of Michael Jordan involves AMF Bowling, which recently inked him to a five-year personal services contract.

You think Michael Jordan bowls? You think he slaps on a lime-green shirt that says "Al's Sunoco" on the back and rolls a few in the Thursday Nite B League with Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc?

Nevertheless, AMF has come out with an orange-colored, Michael Jordan signature bowling ball, designed to look like a basketball.

Yes, yes, it sounds hideous.

Sales of the ball will probably go through the roof.

A SLAM-DUNK SPOKESMAN

A record-setter on the basketball court, Michael Jordan also has changed the game of corporate spokesmanship:

* The Jordan effect": Fortune magazine estimates the revenue-generating power of the Jordan "brand" at $10 billion to date.

* Michael the pitchman: Jordan's many corporate teammates and the products he endorses for them include:

Coca-Cola (Coke)

McDonald's (Quarter-Pounders and Value Meals)

General Mills (Wheaties)

Wilson (sporting goods)

Sara Lee (Hanes underwear, Ballpark Franks)

Upper Deck (sports collectibles)

WorldCom (long distance and phone cards)

CBS Sportsline (sports Web site)

Quaker Oats (Gatorade)

Oakley (sunglasses and apparel)

Ray-o-Vac (batteries)

Each pays Jordan between $2 million and $5 million annually.

By the numbers

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