Betting That His Airness Will Soar Again

If a Jordan comeback fizzles, it could cost marketers dearly

Michael Jordan may or may not be the greatest basketball player of all time. But he is unquestionably the most prolific corporate pitchman hoops has ever seen, with about $45 million a year in endorsement deals. Jordan also is almost 39--and more brittle than the airborne wonder fans remember. During months of clandestine training this summer for a possible comeback, he cracked a rib and was hampered by chronic knee pain.

Therein lies the dilemma for companies trying to figure out the latest chapter of Michael and the NBA: How to make the most of a triumphant return without frittering away millions if Jordan gets hurt or, just as bad, turns out to be an uninspiring imitation of his former Airness.

Even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks really gave pause to advertisers, the possibility of a Jordan return after a three-year layoff was presenting tough choices, say ad execs and sports marketers. "Not that I predict mediocrity for him, but if Jordan were to stubbornly play on as a human Michael as opposed to a superhuman Michael, his advertisers definitely would be hurt," says Robert Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc. in Evanston, Ill., which matches sports stars with endorsement deals.

"Jordan is a wonderful myth who left at the top of his basketball game. If you're a consumer brand, anything that tarnishes that myth can't be good," adds Mark DiMassimo, president of DiMassimo Brand Advertising in New York.

Big names like Gatorade and Nike either won't discuss Jordan's comeback or are guarded about their plans. Champion Athleticwear, which will make the Jordan jerseys that should be on racks at sneaker stores if the word is go, has also clammed up. Champion does acknowledge that weeks ago it began accepting orders for Washington Wizards' Jordan shirts.

Although he played his last game in 1998, Jordan never disappeared from some ad campaigns. Nike Inc. continues to push its Jordan brand, including a hot-selling basketball shoe. Gatorade still uses Jordan, often pairing him in its TV commercials with other elite athletes, including soccer superstar Mia Hamm. His comeback means more face time for the NBA icon but not necessarily new commercials. Companies will be tempted to repackage old Jordan footage for a month or two--or at least until he proves that he still has his game, say sports marketers.

That way, not a lot of money is on the line. But for some companies, the risks involved in a Jordan comeback are as great as the opportunity for killer rewards. Champion, one of two companies licensed by the NBA to produce Jordan jerseys, has had an anxious few months waiting for the basketball legend to make up his mind. The sports apparel manufacturer, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., had reason to be wary: For Jordan's last comeback, Champion ramped up production of a jersey for the Chicago Bulls, his team at the time, with the number 45 emblazoned on the back. Not long into the comeback, Jordan switched to the number he had worn during his earlier career, 23, sticking the company with shirts bearing the right name and wrong number.

GUESSING GAME. This time, there have been other challenges for Champion. Jerseys of the woeful Wizards, Jordan's new team, are among the slowest sellers of the 29 NBA franchises. If Jordan decides to pass on a comeback, Champion could be left to sell off the equivalent of three-armed sweaters. Even with Jordan back in uniform, Champion will still be under pressure to guess right about demand: Its deal to produce league jerseys ends in July, meaning it has limited time to sell to the bare walls.

Plus, there's no telling whether Jordan gear will be as hot with NBA fans this time, especially with the younger set who don't remember Jordan at his high-flying best. "I don't think there's any question that for the first week or two after he comes back, his jersey will be No. 1," says Mark Hoffman of apparel researchers Sport Scan Info.

After that, it's anyone's guess how long the Jordan magic will last. "I don't think teens have been waiting for Michael to come back. Teens want to align themselves with what's hot-- someone like [Los Angeles Lakers star] Kobe Bryant," says Peter Land, a former NBA executive who now heads sports marketing at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. Still, maybe Michael can change their minds--if he doesn't sprain his ankle first.

By Mark Hyman

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