Will retiring bring end to bull market? Diminished appeal is likely byproduct


His face isn't likely to disappear overnight from your television sets and grocer's shelves. But with his retirement from basketball yesterday, Michael Jordan has begun to write the last chapter of the most successful commercial career in sports.

Jordan, whose camera-friendly smile revolutionized product marketing and earned him more than $50 million a year, is still locked into millions of dollars worth of long-term promotion contracts. But his value as a pitchman inevitably will decline as the memories of his championship seasons fade, according to marketing experts.

His impact, however, will last for generations. He launched the careers of super-agents, helped propel Nike Inc. to the top echelon of footwear makers and broke through barriers of race and stigma, proving that a black athlete could sell non-sports products to a national audience.

"He's the greatest athlete [endorser] of all time. I've been in this business 23 years and only Joe Namath and Mickey Mantle have been as good at relating to fans," said David Burns, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Services of Chicago, which pairs

advertisers with celebrity endorsements.

But Namath and Mantle were restricted largely to selling pain relievers, after-shaves and other products used by athletes or bought by men who watched sports. Jordan was different. Consumers bought his Wheaties, ate his McDonald hamburgers, and tried to "Be Like Mike" when they drank his Gatorade.

"He showed that an athlete had the ability to cross over to products that weren't male-oriented. He broke through that barrier," said Noreen Jenney, president of Celebrity Endorsements Network of Woodland Hills, Calif.

Jordan, in his Air Jordan shoes, also helped pioneer the concept of building mass-market product lines around individual athletes.

"Before Jordan, you would have a whole stable of athletes and not just one person. Now you find a lot of companies trying to find a Michael Jordan for them," said John Antil, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Delaware.

In the process, Jordan became the first black to break into the top 10 list of highest-paid celebrity product endorsers, said Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

"There was a myth that black athletes cannot sell products and he proved the magnitude of the star sold the product," Lapchick said.

Jordan's popularity will not evaporate overnight. But over time it is bound to fade.

"When you're not out there in the spotlight every day, it's tough to demand it," Jenney said.

Jordan was worth more off the court than on it. His $4 million-a-year salary from the Chicago Bulls last season was dwarfed by a slew of endorsements worth an estimated $50 million or more a year. But his play is what made consumers listen.

A savvy public relations adviser can find ways to keep a client in the news, especially one as recognizable as Jordan. But it will be impossible to duplicate the public exposure Jordan's on-court presence brought him, Burns said.

Nike stock dropped 75 cents per share, to $45.25, yesterday as investors apparently fretted about the impact of his retirement on the company, which was already in the process of major retrenchment. Jordan-related products account for about $200 million of the company's nearly $4 billion-a-year revenues.

When he signed up to endorse Nike shoes nine years ago, the athletic footwear industry was in the midst of explosive growth. And the Jordan offensive -- a tightly scripted campaign of promotions, clever commercials and new product designs -- pushed Nike ahead of then-industry leader Reebok.

"It was the first fully integrated marketing campaign for Nike. He became almost a case study in how you endorse a product," said Jennifer Black Groves, a footwear analyst with Black & Co. brokerage who doesn't think the retirement will hurt the company in the long run.

But the jitters on Wall Street prompted Nike chief executive Philip Knight to release a statement saying, "Michael Jordan did not retire from Nike today."

Jordan said yesterday that most of his endorsement deals were 10-year contracts that continue regardless of his playing status.

"I don't think it's going to tarnish my relationship at all with them," Jordan said. "I still have an opportunity to get with my companies and do some endorsements."

But, he added, "Do I need a job? No."

There will be some immediate changes. NBA rules allow only active players to wear their uniforms in promotions, so some commercials will have to be reshot, Burns said. Clips of past games still can be used, however, he said.

"He stepped out on top. It's the smartest thing he could have done," Burns said.

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