Rebel With A Cachet

Why would anyone pay flamboyant San Antonio Spurs forward Dennis Rodman major bucks to endorse a product? After all, the 34-year-old robo-rebounder with the psychedelic hair and belly-button ring is, by his own admission, cynical, self-centered, and authority-hating. Sound familiar? Rodman is almost a walking cliche of supposed Generation X attributes. So far two marketers have recruited him to slam-dunk their products home to that elusive group.

Rodman is definitely not from the squeaky-clean, face-on-the-cereal-box school of celebrity endorsers. Openly defiant of his coach and boastful of his late night revels and gambling habit, he has made himself into a bizarre rebel. In one of his latest public tantrums, a pouting Rodman removed his sneakers and refused to confer with teammates after he was benched in the closing seconds of a game in this spring's National Basketball Assn. playoffs. Then there was the recent Sports Illustrated cover featuring Rodman in a halter top, metallic hot pants, and a studded dog collar. Rodman, who is single and avowedly heterosexual, displays a public penchant for gay bars. He showed up for a playoff game in April sporting white hair emblazoned with a red AIDS-awareness insignia. That followed earlier dye jobs of magenta, neon green, and brick red.

BABY-BUSTER APPEAL. Despite these exploits--or perhaps because of them--Rodman has won a couple of big-time national endorsements. He's in the middle of a three-year contract with Nike Inc. and earlier this year appeared in a commercial for Pizza Hut Inc. So what is his appeal? "A sponsor who hooks up with Rodman is going after sports fans, particularly young, urban sports fans," says Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports-business publication. "Once you get beyond the younger set, his antics are more disturbing than appealing."

Rodman's sponsors believe he strikes a chord with the elusive twentysomething market. After the Pizza Hut spot--part of a campaign to launch Stuffed Crust Pizza--premiered in late March, sales jumped almost 15%. And Nike is happy with what it's getting. "Dennis may be a little odd, but he's committed no crimes and he's very much a part of our future," says Tom Feuer, manager of public relations at Nike.

Using any celebrity endorser carries a risk. Plenty of advertisers have been badly burned when their high-priced talent self-destructed in messy scandals. Consider the plight of Hertz Corp., which used O.J. Simpson as its spokesman for 20 years. "Hertz had a huge investment in O.J. and now all that equity is gone," says Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research, a Newport (R.I.) sports-marketing research firm. There have been other backfires: The vocal anti-gay crusade of spokeswoman Anita Bryant put her employer, the Florida Citrus Dept., in an uncomfortable position. And Michael Jackson was dropped by PepsiCo Inc. after his tour was canceled in the wake of child-molestation charges. Still, using sports figures and celebrities as endorsers remains big business.

Using a pitchman such as Rodman may actually be less risky than choosing a star with an image that's shinier--and so more prone to tarnish. "With Dennis' controversial image, sponsors know what to expect," says David Burns, founder of Burns Sports Celebrity Service Inc., a Chicago-based sports talent firm. "No matter what he does, there will be no surprises." Besides, contracts today have a lot more escape hatches, allowing sponsors to bail out at minimal cost at the first hint of drug use, sexual scandal, or criminal charges.

Some of Rodman's fans on Madison Avenue see his shenanigans as part of a marketing ploy. "Dennis has cultivated and created his bad-boy persona," says Philip B. Dusenberry, chairman of BBDO New York Inc., the agency behind the Pizza Hut commercial. "He's decided to make himself marketable and not blend into the wallpaper of the NBA."

Rodman, whose highly publicized relationship with Madonna ended last year, appears to have been an apt student of the queen of outrageous self-promotion. Aside from well-televised on-the-court antics, he has talked with Warner Bros. Inc. and Walt Disney Co. about possible movie roles. Crown Publishers Inc. released a biography last year, and Rodman has widened his appeal by appearing on major TV shows, including The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "Dennis has an agenda," explains Brandon Steiner of New York-based Steiner Sports Marketing Inc., a sports talent firm. "He sees a world beyond basketball, and he's positioning himself."

MIXED STATS. Like his platinum ex, Rodman does have credible talents in his chosen profession. He led the NBA in rebounding last season for the fourth consecutive time, a feat matched only by legends Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone. Still, in basketball's crucial offensive statistics--scoring and assists--Rodman's numbers are embarrassingly low. He'll never be the sort of franchise player an owner can build a team around, such as the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing or the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon. Worse, he's virtually uncoachable, and his childish behavior has alienated teammates. NBA sources say the Spurs are trying to unload their unruly power forward.

Rodman seems unconcerned. Sports marketers agree that if he lands in a larger city, say New York or Los Angeles, his endorsement possibilities would quickly multiply. Moralists may opine that American society is in decline when corporate sponsors prefer self-appointed bad-boy rebels to more traditional clean-cut role models. But as long as Rodman can keep his face--and ever-changing hair color--in the papers while avoiding serious trouble, he will find marketers willing to pay for his kind of flair. His famed lack of reliability, though, isn't all an act: Rodman failed to deliver on a promised interview with BUSINESS WEEK.

Pizza Hut and Nike are shelling out big bucks for Rodman's bad-boy image.

PIZZA HUT Teamed Rodman with fellow Spurs player David Robinson in national TV ad for Stuffed Crust Pizza. Ad premiered in late March and ran during prime-time. Fee: $150,000.

NIKE Signed Rodman to a three-year contract to endorse Nike products. Featured in national TV and cable ads with other NBA stars.

Fee: $375,000.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.