The Nba May Feel A Void But Jordan Inc. Will Play On

The final play took place in a hotel room in Deerfield, Ill. There, on Oct. 5, basketball superstar Michael Jordan, his agent David Falk, and Falk's associate Curtis Polk methodically placed phone calls from noon until 5 p.m., announcing the end to Jordan's playing days. Falk first called National Basketball Assn. Commissioner David J. Stern. Then he phoned each of the companies that collectively pay Jordan an estimated $28 million a year to move products: Nike, McDonald's, Quaker Oats' Gatorade unit, and a host of others. Occasionally, Jordan took the phone after Falk broke the news, but most often, Falk handled the chore alone.

As they deal with the dawn of a post-Jordan era, each of the recipients of Falk's telephone calls faces a daunting task. The league must create new superstars to replace Jordan's charisma. The Chicago Bulls must build a winner before moving into a $160 million new stadium in 1994. And the corporate sponsors face the toughest task of all: They've got to take an asset that renewed itself every time Michael Jordan laced up his Nikes and make certain it does not waste away. "Michael's not going to be bouncing a basketball up and down a basketball court 100 times a year," Falk says. "But he's with a group of blue-chip companies that will work to maintain his image around the world." And he's with them for a long time. This past summer, before Jordan's father was murdered in an act of apparently random violence, Falk told the sponsors that it was time to prepare for the 30-year-old Jordan's eventual retirement. Falk then renegotiated most of the endorsement deals--set to expire over the next few years--extending them out 10 years, regardless of whether Jordan remained in the game. Says Guy E. Thomas, Wilson Sporting Goods Co.'s marketing director for basketball: "The goal was to try to maintain the public fascination with Michael Jordan for a long period of time." Still, he adds, Jordan's retirement "is not something we counted on quite so soon."

JUST DID IT? By the time Jordan officially announced his withdrawal from the game on Oct. 6, only the contract with McDonald's Corp. remained to be signed. And only McDonald's apparently did not receive a call from Jordan in advance of his announcement. "We found out about it the same time the rest of the world did, and that was on television," says a spokeswoman.

Jordan's biggest sponsor, Nike Inc., stands to lose the most if it can't refashion the Jordan endorsement message. Nike Chairman Philip K. Knight, whose $200 million Air Jordan line has fallen prey to the slow growth infecting the sneaker business, flew to Chicago from Beaverton, Ore., to spend the morning at Jordan's house before the retirement press conference. Now Knight must decide whether Jordan still fits Nike's "Just Do It" marketing campaign. There's an early test ahead. The company on Nov. 15 is set to launch its newest Air Jordan shoe, and TV commercials still have to be shot for the sneaker.

For Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the retirement is cause for alarm. True, skyboxes in the Bulls' new United Center, which opens in the fall of '94, are all leased for up to eight years. But season ticket sales and the value of the Bulls franchise--currently estimated at $120 million--all could drop if the Bulls don't keep winning in the post-Jordan era. "Obviously, this is not a good thing for the franchise," Reinsdorf says. "But it's not going to have any long-lasting negative effect."

CHARISMA GAP. The NBA, which has been heralded as the most successful sports league in recent years, will have to fight to prevent a fallout. Besides Jordan, perennial stars Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson also have retired within the past 12 months. Now the league must build its image around players with bad-boy images, such as outspoken Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley, or around such relative newcomers as Shaquille O'Neal. "There's going to have to be another Michael Jordan to wear the crown," says Stern.

Jordan, as he wound up his professional basketball career before an international TV audience, seemed at peace about his decision. He says that the game holds no new challenges and that he wants to lead a more normal life. "The spotlight has been very good to me, and hopefully, I've been good to it," he says. Now, it's up to Jordan and his sponsors to make certain that the light doesn't dim too fast.