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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Athletes In A Slump With Advertisers by Sam Mellinger


You've probably seen the commercial by now. Lance Armstrong, rattled but stubborn, announcing at a news conference in 1996 that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

The room's silence is broken only by the clicking of cameras, and Armstrong's solemn speech.

"The CT scan revealed that the condition has spread into my abdomen," Armstrong says.

Screen goes black, with white letters: And his lungs and brain.

"For now I must focus on my treatment," Armstrong continues. "However I want all of you to know that I intend to beat this disease, and I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist."

Screen goes yellow now, with black letters: Just do it.

Nike's MO dictates that athletes probably will always be front-and-center in promotions. Heck, ever since Red Rock Cola hired Babe Ruth in the 1930s, lots of athletes have cashed in with endorsements.

But look around. Twenty years after Michael Jordan and Mars Blackmon burst on the scene, the trend is going away from athletes-turned-spokesmen. A few shoe companies now use anonymous athletes, while other corporations have turned to entertainers such as 50 Cent, Britney Spears and Ludacris.

It's easy to point to the tainted images of Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson and Mark McGwire to justify fewer athlete endorsements. Doug Drotman, head of the New York-based sports public-relations firm Drotman Communications, blames this trend on the retirement of such bankable stars as Jordan, Magic Johnson, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky.

"It was sort of like the perfect storm," Drotman says. "Everything happened at the same time, all these larger-than-life athletes. Sports marketing was changing and athletes were becoming more involved. It boomed, and everybody sort of rode the wave."

It didn't matter that the charges were dropped. When a Colorado woman accused Kobe Bryant of sexual assault two summers ago, corporations took notice.

First McDonald's dropped him. Then an Italian chocolate manufacturer did the same. Sprite cut ads featuring Bryant but claimed it was planned before the arrest. Nike kept him on the payroll but stopped using him in ads.

Bryant speaks three languages, comes from an affluent family, and had previously maintained a Beaver Cleaver-clean image. When Mike Tyson gets arrested, nobody blinks an eye. When Bryant's mug shot is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it's a whole different story.

"Corporate America has become risk-averse across the board when it comes to sponsorships," says David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group consulting firm in Los Angeles. "If you choose the wrong athlete, you have a big problem on your hand. If you pick the right athlete, you have to pay for it, but the upside is pretty strong. As we saw with Kobe Bryant, the risk is very big as well."

Some companies still interested in celebrity endorsements are moving toward the entertainment world. As the hip-hop culture continues to establish itself in the mainstream, its stars have followed suit.

DJ Funkmaster Flex and rapper Birdman each have their own lines of shoes. Snoop Dogg's kicks are called "Doggie Biscuitz." Eve, Kanye West, Fat Joe and Ludacris are among those pushing cell phones. Jay-Z hawks shoes and a premium brand of vodka.

50 Cent may best represent the crossover appeal , appearing in a current ad for Reebok's street brand, RBK. The rapper plays stickball with Boston outfielder Manny Ramirez, shadow-boxes Winky Wright and catches a pass from Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

McNabb told USA Today that some athletes are a little leery of sharing a previously monopolized market with others. Drotman says there is no need to worry.

"This is no way signals the end of athletes in advertising," Drotman says. "I agree that the line between athlete and entertainer has been blurred and entertainers are taking away some of the opportunities, but when the next hero emerges, Madison Avenue will be lined up outside their door."

One thing athletes will always have as an advantage: Their on-field accomplishments lend them to being role models. Rappers, on the other hand, often make money off songs that need to be edited for the radio for foul language, references to violence and insults to women.

Ludacris, for example, lost a Pepsi sponsorship after cable conservative Bill O'Reilly called for a boycott because of some racy lyrics.

Kevin Adler, vice president for sponsorships and events at Relay Sponsorship and Event marketing, says one major, family-minded corporation wanted to hire 50 Cent but balked after seeing his Web site, which pictured the rapper in a bulletproof vest and sounds of gunfire.

"Do I think athletes are losing ground, big picture? No," Adler says. "I think marketers are getting smarter on how and where they use athletes and celebrity spokespeople in general. They're getting more selective in who they associate themselves with and how closely."

Here's one: Tiger Woods, the man credited with single-handedly bringing golf to the mainstream masses, the man with more millions than socks, the man with the Swedish bikini model bride, promotes . . . Buick?

Really?

Does anybody really believe Tiger Woods drives a Buick?

"They're positioned as your grandfather's car," says Frank Compton, co-managing director and chief creative ambassador for Blattner Brunner/SRC. "They think, `We'll get this hip, young athlete to be our spokesperson,' and they see it as a silver bullet. They should have started by designing a product that young people, hip people, would want."

Compton calls celebrity endorsement a "copout" for ad agencies who can't think of a better idea. He says it's ineffective in selling a product.

"If you gotta use an athlete, you're in search of a big idea that's not there," Compton says. "Why it got popular is there's a lot of ego involved. It's more for bragging rights at the country club that, `Hey, I did a commercial with so-and-so.' "

His skin might crawl, and he might break into a rash if you make him say it too many times, but Compton does admit there are exceptions to his thinking.

One of Nike's most memorable commercials showed Woods bouncing a ball of his club_almost Harlem Globetrotter style_for what seems like an eternity before blasting it out of view.

"Here was Nike coming on with their own golf ball and they needed something that would go far beyond, `Hey, did you see that TV commercial?' " Compton says. "You get that buzz going in addition to the fact that he's doing TV commercials, using your product. In that case, even though I don't like celebrity commercials, I think it worked."

There have been other successful marketing campaigns based around star athletes, all of which might poke holes in Compton's theory. Jordan, for instance, has been a virtual gold mine for corporations. Gatorade built an identity around its "Be Like Mike" ads; Nike did the same with "Air Jordan."

Andre Agassi's emergence into the mainstream was aided by a series of successful commercials that promoted his wild behavior, and the amount of Budweiser consumed at NASCAR events is no doubt increased by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s endorsement.

"I disagree wholeheartedly (that celebrity endorsements are a waste)," Adler says. "The entire sponsorship model is the idea of borrowed equity. Look at Gatorade, look at some of Pepsi's history with celebrity endorsers. It's very impactful, and it works."

That term "borrowed equity" isn't just some marketing jargon. Athletes, agents and corporations take that seriously, researching to make sure the only deals that are made are beneficial to both sides.

He's not an athlete, but broadcaster Dick Vitale is one of the most recognized personalities in college basketball. That profile has been boosted by cameo appearances in movies such as "Blue Chips" and "He Got Game" but also in television spots for DiGiorno Pizza and Hooters .

Vitale says any thought of associating with Hooters - known for its scantily clad waitresses - was erased by the restaurant's assistance to the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

According to Vitale, since he signed on, Hooters has raised more than $300,000.

"Thinking about that, it was really a home run, a slam dunk for me when they got involved with the V Foundation," Vitale says. "You never see me in any shape or form with liquor or anything like that. I'm just talking about basketball and the wings and the chicken."

Sam Mellinger can be reached via e-mail at smellinger@kcstar.com. This article appears in the Kansas City Star.


Sam Mellinger

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

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