In 2020, a star professional athlete will probably make more money off of his endorsements than his actual salary. The days of an NFL player driving a cab in the off-season are long gone, but it’s not exactly ancient history.
Part of the reason athletes are able to flourish off their talents financially more so now is thanks to Black athletes taking control of their influence. Michael Jordan is easily the first person who comes to mind, but there were a myriad of Black athletes from the 1980’s (think: Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Flo Jo) whose exploits on the field made them millions in endorsements, which was surely a fraction of the boatloads of cash they surely made the brands they pushed.
But fast-forward to today, the current crop of athletes saw the template set by Air Jordan, and improved on it. The result; more of a say in what their images will be, more opportunities beyond athletic apparel and sports drinks, and exponentially healthier bank accounts thanks to equity in what they are ultimately pushing, themselves.
If we take Michael Jordan signing with Nike as the beginning, let’s use that jump off point to compare the effect it had on today’s generation of financially woke and business savvy athletes.
Nike Becomes King, Thanks To The Black Guy
To think, Michael Jordan initially was interested in signing with adidas. However, the three stripes brand wasn’t too keen on the University of North Carolina star. Oops.
Nike, which back then was not the ubiquitous worldwide brand it is now, was also on the come up and inclined to sign a fresh talent. Jordan proceeds to win Rookie of the Year and become everyone’s favorite new player, while wearing his own signature shoe, the Air Jordan 1. A legend begins.
Black Star Power
Sneaker ads before Michael Jordan may have included the athlete handling their business on the court while wearing the product they endorsed. Nike then brilliantly brought in a rising Black filmmaker with tons of personality named Spike Lee. Using his Mars Blackmon character from She’s Gotta Have It for the comedy (finessed by Wieden & Kennedy) while Air Jordan played it straight only bolstered Jordan’s signature shoes as the must have sneaker.
Recently, Kyrie Irving portrayed his own hilarious character, an OG version of himself called Uncle Drew, for a series of funny ads for Pepsi. Not just limited to commercials, he starred in an entire movie called Uncle Drew.
Speaking of beverages, you’re not really about that endorsement life if you’re not pushing a drink. See the aforementioned Kyrie with Pepsi or LeBron James and Sprite. In 1991—hey, that’s close enough to the 80’s—Jordan was brought on to endorse Gatorade. It’s not like they weren’t already the thirst quencher of choice, but those Like Mike ads with the catchy jingle brought the brand to a new level of awareness. Add to the mix Michael wearing his own signature kicks in the commercials…cha-ching!
All great things come to an end, and Michael Jordan’s final retirement stuck in 2003. But, his Air Jordan shoes continue to be best sellers. Kids born after he even signed with Nike in 1984 continue to covet his signature sneakers. Now, Jordan Brand is its own distinct brand in the Nike family, and Michael Jordan himself is the owner. So every time a Jordan shoe is sold, Michael Jordan is getting paid, as he should.
Despite all his power moves Michael Jordan was probably way underpaid in the grand scheme of things. Today’s athletes, and the teams behind them, are keenly aware of their profitability as a marketing entity. Let’s take the next GOAT, LeBron James. King James has endorsement deals with Beats headphones, Coca-Cola (Sprite), Beats, 2K Sports, to name a few, and a lifetime deal with Nike. James also owns a film production company, SpringHill Entertainment, and had gotten props for his acting chops—and will star in the forthcoming Space Jam sequel.
Whether blatantly or subtly, what has Michael Jordan taught his disciples in sports and business? Know your worth—and accept no less.