The Rise of the Corporate Athlete

How much is Johnny Football worth?
How much is Johnny Football worth? Let the bidding begin!

By Keysha Hogan

Michael Jordan and his sneakers. David Beckham and his briefs. George Foreman and his grill.

Over the years we have witnessed legendary athletes step back from the game and become eclipsed by the products they pushed. There is no doubt that the lonely and grueling years of dedication to their chosen sport sometimes is worth the hefty salaries these players earn. But the payday doesn’t end with just a salary. There’s money that comes to those with a name and face synonymous with winning.

When it comes to endorsement marketing, companies rely upon the theories of product match-up, source attractiveness, and source credibility. If a brand combines credibility with trustworthiness, the audience is far more likely to respond positively to an ad. Couple that with the likeability of an attractive face, and it’s basically money in the bank. A young, fresh-faced, prescandal Tiger Woods pushing golf clubs just made sense. But when that marriage of attributes is forced, the ads seem sinister and disjointed.

For the past few years, health researchers have become increasingly critical of the unhealthy food and drinks marketed to us by the most physically fit people in the world. AdScope, an advertising database, named the top 100 athletes and monitored their combined 512 paid endorsements. Of that group, there were 62 food products, of which 49 were low in nutritional value and high in calories. Watching the Adonislike Olympians bite into chicken nuggets as if they were gold medals caused more than a few eye rolls.

Even when there isn’t a dubious motive behind an endorsement deal sometimes they just don’t make sense. Remember when Joe Namath was on TV representing the Beautymist Pantyhose empire? Or when Hulk Hogan was pushing a gadget called Pastamania? Then there’s the ad where Jimmy Johnson is all dressed up next to a race car telling you about how Extenze changed his life. The ad harkens back to the stomach sinking feeling of walking in on your parents in a compromising situation.

So why would companies subject us to these type of ads? Because they work. In your brain you have some cells that are called mirror neurons. Remember last year when University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware’s leg gruesomely snapped during prime-time television? Well you probably flinched in sympathy, your body recoiled, and you got a little rush of sickness. These mirror neurons are activated by simply seeing someone else in action. When Serena Williams scores a point, the same neurons light up as if you actually hit the ball.

When we see something disjointed like Woods in a Buick, it breaks the mirror and the deeply entrenched connection our brain has made. The brands that craft these connections know exactly how much they are worth, that’s why billions are spent to make sure each of us tries to be like the cool kids. Yet dollar for dollar, your most beloved athletes are becoming more comfortable in a Madison Avenue boardroom than in the gym.

For example, let’s take Floyd “Money” Mayweather. In 2013 he brought in a staggering $90 million in salary and earnings. He does have business dealings but he made nothing in endorsements for other outside companies. He’s basically 100 percent an athlete. LeBron James earned a $17,545,000 paycheck from the Miami Heat and other earnings, and $39 million in endorsements. So he’s about 31 percent athlete and 69 percent pitchman.

Large endorsement contracts for athletes are usually based on rankings and are packed full of performance bonuses. But golfer Phil Mickelson is a bit older and doesn’t win much any more, and he is extremely well liked. He often plays with logos for Callaway, Barclays and KPMG on his shirts and visors. Last year he earned $3,528,000 in earnings and $36 million in endorsements. He’s 9 percent athlete and 91 percent Don Draper-approved ad man.

We know they always say it’s the journey that counts, but for those with talent and popular face and name sometimes the money counts far more. Even Charles Barkley knows a hustle when he sees it. A few years ago Barkley was announcing a game on TNT. An open mic caught him breaking down the rules of his recent Weight Watchers deal.

“I have to lose two pounds a week,” he said. “I’m at 38 pounds now. They come and weigh me every two weeks. I ain’t never missed a weigh-in. Never going to.”

Then he explained, “I thought this was the greatest scam going; getting paid for watching sports. This Weight Watchers thing is a bigger scam.” After he made all of his apologies, he can now be found on the Weight Watchers website touting the complexity and versatility of broccoli.

In the world of sports, empires and legacies are built upon the hope that joints and ligaments can withstand years of abuse and transform the body into a machine that is unstoppable. It seems players have wised up to this fact, and will continue to auction their names off to the highest bidder, knowing that nothing lasts forever.