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Businessweek Archives

Big George And The `Over The Hill' Gang

Sports Business


George Foreman said it all with a single haymaker. Standing over Michael Moorer on Nov. 5, his right hand stinging from the knockout punch that made him heavyweight champion of the world at age 45, big old George showed why so many sports graybeards have become the golden boys--and girls--of athlete endorsement.

Foreman, Arnold Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Chris Evert, and other stars of sports marketing's senior tour are all old enough to laugh at themselves, revered enough to make you take notice, and familiar enough to exude a sense of comforting believability. (Foreman, currently seen hawking Doritos chips and Meineke mufflers, will likely be lending his smiling moon face to several new ad campaigns after his stunning victory.)

NO HOLDOUTS. Sure, disasters such as Hertz's long nightmare with O.J. Simpson can happen, but old pro athletes remain in great demand these days, to push everything from painkillers to cellular phones. Ice-skater Peggy Fleming, a gold-medal winner at the 1968 Olympics, axels for Advil. And 65-year-old dewsweeper Arnie Palmer admonishes his army to buy Quaker State motor oil. "The retired guys are busier now than they've ever been," says David Burns, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Service Inc. in Chicago.

Why? Simple. For one, there's no chance of an old pro having an off season, staging a contract holdout, or blowing up at the coach and embarrassing the company. Also, it's less likely that old pros will have drug problems, car crashes, or fistfights in bars. "You're building predictability into the marketing campaign," says Brian J. Murphy, editor of The Sports Marketing Letter in Westport, Conn.

Retired or fortysomething stars enjoy high credibility with consumers (table). And they're seen as icons by baby boomers. That's why Jim Palmer followed Phil Rizzuto as pitcher for the Money Store, a Union (N.J.) consumer-loan company that targets its advertising to the 25- to 54-year-old age group. The 49-year-old former Orioles hurler is " the right age demographics for us, and he's clean-cut," says Mauro Appezzato, the lender's ad director. Just as significant: Graying jocks appeal to the aging boomers who now hold top marketing spots at major companies. "You're talking about a group of athletes that these people can relate to," says Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree Passport Celebrity Network in Chicago.

Having hung up their cleats, retired athletes also have more time to spend schmoozing for corporations as part of the marketing plan. Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen now gives pep talks to John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. agents. Companies "need the athlete for public relations, VIP events, and corporate hospitality," says Frederick A. Fried, executive vice-president of Integrated Sports International in East Rutherford, N.J., Jansen's agent.

HEADACHES. Baseball's strikeout king Nolan Ryan is a prime example of what companies are looking for in an old pro spokesperson. "People develop reputations in how they perform and how they lead their lives," says Ryan. He should know. Ryan was never one to get involved in bar brawls or arguments with the front office. As such, he's in demand and will earn an estimated $3 million endorsing Advil, Southwest Airlines, and Wrangler jeans this year. "I pick products that I have a personal interest in, and it has to be a product I use," drawls the 47-year-old Ryan.

Ryan ranks 16th in athlete name recognition, according to American Sports Data Inc., a sports-marketing research firm in Hartsdale, N.Y. But when it comes to influencing consumers, he's fourth among all athletes, retired or active, behind Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, and Shaquille O'Neal. With Advil, Ryan says he knows he has fans in his age group, "and those are the people that Advil is targeting."

According to American Sports Data, 9 of the 10 most recognized athletes are retired or semiretired. And 9 of the top 20 most influential athletes for advertising purposes are retired. With stats like that, the old pros may have it all over the Young Turks and the rookies for years to come. Just ask Michael Moorer. And give the poor guy a couple of Advil.WHO DO YOU TRUST?

Of the 20 most trusted athletes, 9 are retired or past 40. Ranked in order of credibility on a scale of 1-5, they are:

4. NOLAN RYAN 3.64


6. LARRY BIRD 3.51



13. K. ABDUL-JABBAR 3.26

15. JOE NAMATH 3.19


19. CHRIS EVERT 3.15



Chris Roush in New Haven

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