Skip to main content
Original Issue


Some black superstars cash in big on an ability to shed their racial identity

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."

"Ashe may have been the pioneer," says Lee Fentress, managing director of Advantage International, which represents Robinson. Two other names frequently cited for breaking ground in the endorsement field for today's black athletes are O.J. Simpson (Hertz) and Julius Erving (Converse). Says Fentress, "The lack of endorsement opportunities may not have been racial as much as a recognition of who the consumer is. Eighty percent of this country is white." However, corporate America wasn't convinced that the white consumer could be appealed to by a black spokesperson. Even at the height of his popularity, Ashe's endorsement income was "six figures, never seven," he says. "I was half a generation away from that."

Three things happened during that half generation that helped to open the corporate coffers to African-American athletes: 1) Basketball cleaned up its image; 2) Johnson and Jordan came to the NBA with NCAA championships and engaging personas; and 3) Nike had success using Jordan as a pitchman.

But there has been another, more subtle, reason for white America's new and unprecedented trust in and adoration of black athletes. "I do think there's been a kind of general, abstract improvement in race relations in this country, more of a willingness to recognize merit," says Marvin Bressler, chairman of the sociology department at Princeton. "A white guy sitting in a bar in Detroit acknowledges that Jordan should make more money than John Paxson, and commercial endorsements are seen as part of the rewards for athletic merit. Some sense of fairness exists that now includes black people and formerly didn't. But does that white guy on the stool necessarily regard the black man on the street as any less threatening? I don't think so."

It is no coincidence that basketball players dominate the endorsement field today. Only five players are on the floor for a team at a time, so they are easily identified and recognized. And it certainly doesn't hurt that they perform close to the spectators, their features and bodies unobscured by helmets and neck-to-ankle uniforms. "You feel you can almost touch them," says Charles Grantham, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. "A few years ago the NBA was perceived on Madison Avenue as being too black and too drug-infested. Once that was turned around, the league was able to promote its new personalities as exciting stars who were caring and concerned about their communities."

Hence there is a plethora of ads, sponsored both by the league and by companies, urging youngsters to stay in school and off drugs. These are messages white America wants to hear, and the hope is that the subliminal goodwill they return to the messengers, to the game and, in turn, to the products the messengers promote will be powerful stuff.

"The guys you're talking about—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, David Robinson—are outstanding people, and when you put that together with their talent, it doesn't matter what color they are," says Grantham. "But that type of athlete wasn't created yesterday. Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Gale Sayers and Willie Stargell were all personable guys. But the time was not right. It took companies that were willing to step up and be associated with black athletes—and the shoe companies deserve credit for that. They were the first ones to put superstar players out there as spokesmen. But they weren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Companies are motivated by profit and loss, and it was, pure and simple, good business. And as soon as other companies realized these young stars could sell products, they all jumped on board."

It is not so farfetched to say that Jordan-mania was launched by the promotional efforts of a shoe company. "The main reason Jordan took off is he had the good sense to sign with Nike," says Peter Johnson of International Management Group, another sports management firm. "If he'd signed with shoe company XYZ, who knows what would have happened." Adds Fentress, "Nike, to a large extent, created Michael Jordan."

In 1985, the year Nike debuted its Air Jordan line, the company's basketball-shoe sales rose by $28 million, to $153 million, and by 1990 they had risen to $500 million. Says Peter Johnson, "Jordan was then able to go to other companies and say, 'See what I've done for Nike. I sell product. I can help your company.' It had a domino effect. Then Jordan's success enhanced Magic's. It's only been in the last few years that Magic was able to get those national deals with Pepsi and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And I think he wasn't able to do that earlier because he was black. Now they see that Magic can sell products too."

David Falk, Jordan's lawyer at ProServ, stops short of giving Nike full credit for Jordan's early success as a pitchman, although he does allow that "Nike jump-started a lot of his endorsement activity. And the nickname Air Jordan defined Jordan's persona. But Michael already had a national following. He was able to demand his own shoe the day he got out of college."

There was nothing unique in that, however. Walt Frazier had a shoe named after him long before anyone had even heard of Jordan. There was even a Ralph Sampson line of sneakers. What made the Air Jordans take off was the multifaceted assault of Jordan's spectacular playing style, the uniqueness of the original shoe (which was banned by the NBA because of its color scheme) and the marketing clout of Nike's witty and with-it advertisements, some of which were directed by Spike Lee. Doyouknow? Doyouknow? Doyouknow?

Nike CEO Philip Knight is the self-described Branch Rickey of advertising. When asked how much of the credit he deserves for Jordan's phenomenal commercial appeal, he isn't self-effacing. "I have to think we had a lot to do with it, since we've done it again with Bo Jackson and David Robinson," he says.

Haughty as that statement may sound, there's a lot of truth to it. Perhaps the best example of Nike's promotional clout comes not from the success of its black superstar spokesmen but from that of a white one, Andre Agassi. Thanks in large part to Nike's irreverent campaigns, which highlight his long hair, earring and outrageous clothes, Agassi has become the top American draw in men's tennis. Yet, unlike peers Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, he has never won a Grand Slam event.

The secret of Nike's success is that, rather than use athletes as interchangeable jocks, the company has given each spokesman an appealing screen personality that, in the words of Nike's vice-president of marketing, Tom Clarke, "creates an emotional tie between the consumer and the spokesman." Once that tie has been established, the spokesman becomes an asset to whatever product he endorses—which enhances his reach as an endorser. Hence Bo Jackson, who in real life battles a stammer and is often downright hostile to the media, comes across in commercials as a funny, warm, witty ham. That stays with him when he steps over to do a commercial for Pepsi—a deal that was negotiated for him in part by Nike, which has recently entered the field of athlete representation—or any other product. In addition to Jackson, Nike represents Scottie Pippen and Jerry Rice. And it has a new sneaker campaign in the works that will star loudmouthed, oft-fined Charles Barkley.

"It doesn't hurt to be controversial," says Knight, bucking the prevailing wisdom of marketing men. "Distinctive personalities are important, but you don't have to be loved. And color really doesn't matter. A lot of people have written that we've signed these black stars to sell to kids in the inner city. We didn't. [Studies have shown that only 13.8% of Nike's 1990 shoe sales were to members of minorities.] We were looking for great personalities who cut across racial lines. In my own personal focus group, which is my 17-year-old son and his friends, I guarantee you that Michael Jordan is a better salesman than Larry Bird."

Few would argue with that assessment. Jordan has taken this crossover business and, as is his wont, deposited it on another planet. It is one thing to be admired across the racial spectrum; Jordan is idolized. On the court, he is a paradigm of grace, excellence, sportsmanship and imagination. Off the court, he exudes family values and clean living. He is more superhero than superstar to vast segments of the American public. He crosses over the generation gap too. In the "Q scores" put out by Marketing Evaluations, Inc., a market-research group that ranks celebrities by factoring both familiarity and popularity, Jordan ranks first among athletes with the 50-and-over set, first with children ages six to 11 and first with teens.

What's not to like? "He has great skin, a great smile, great teeth, and the camera loves him," says Ashe. "Plus he's one of the very few athletes who make you go, 'Wow!' And he is a genuinely personable guy. He's a dream. The only negative publicity I've ever seen about the guy is those teenagers robbing and killing each other for his shoes."

Some of those shoes retail for $125, a price many parents consider obscene. Jordan has also been taken to task for promoting the Illinois State Lottery; critics say that state lotteries solicit money from those people who can least afford to play, many of whom are black. And, increasingly, black activists have been critical of Jordan for not speaking out more forcefully on issues of concern to low-and middle-income blacks.

"People always try to bring down these stars to see if they have clay feet," says Falk, who denies that Jordan has given up a social conscience in return for money and popularity. "Michael is proud of his identity, proud that his parents brought him up in a color-blind environment."

But what does Jordan believe in? That isn't at all clear. Jordan declined to be interviewed for this article, and thus we are left with conflicting messages: Young people should buy $125 sneakers, stay in school, eat at McDonald's, stay off drugs, drink Coke (for now) or Gatorade (soon), eat Wheaties and play the lottery.

In fairness, though, what does Joe DiMaggio believe in, good coffee? Or Mickey Mantle? How about Arnold Palmer? Joe Montana? Why should Jordan be held to a higher standard than white superstars who have also had a powerful pulpit?

"A lot of black critics say that Bo and Michael have been bought off," says Ashe, "that they're cocooned by their white lawyers and agents, who act as gatekeepers buffering them from outside pressures. But the pressures today on black athletes to get involved in social issues are not nearly as great as they were in the '60s. Back then there were places blacks couldn't go, things we couldn't do. Today the black community is not nearly as focused on these things, because the issues are much more subtle.

"Michael was criticized for not getting involved in the last election, when Harvey Gantt, a black candidate, was running against Senator Jesse Helms in Jordan's home state of North Carolina. [Helms was reelected.] But if you're going to be a genuine sports hero in this country, a Ruth, DiMaggio or Palmer, you have to keep your political views to yourself. Advertisers want somebody who's politically neutered. That's unspoken, but it's understood."

Is it fair to accuse Jordan of copping out? Bressler, the Princeton sociologist, doesn't seem to think so. "Jordan may be saying 'I am admired by large segments of the white population, and that, too, is a contribution to black causes.' There's a wide variety of strategies to further the interests of minority groups, and surely Jordan's is one of them."

Bressler isn't at all convinced, though, that Jordan's popularity—and the fact that other black superstars have become commercially palatable to the American consumer—is a sign of real progress in society's racial arena. "It has no implications for race relations as such," he says. "It's long been the case that whites have acknowledged the athletic excellence of blacks without giving up a whole series of prejudices in other areas. There's no contradiction there. It has always been possible in the history of race relations in this country to say that some of my best friends are X. Such people are very useful in demonstrating our own benevolence. We must be good people—we love Michael Jordan."

The greater sociological implication of this color-blind marketing revolution, then, is largely nil. That is sad. But it shouldn't come as a tremendous surprise when one considers that, long before the word crossover was coined, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and other black jazz musicians were the rage of upper-class white society. Come play for us. Just use the back door.










[See caption above.]









[See caption above.]