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FASHION : Shoe Business’ Star-Studded Sneaker Wars

L.A. Gear signed Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul, Converse tagged Magic Johnson, Nike managed to lure the elusive Spike Lee. Now, Reebok is hustling to pull out what could be the ultimate plum--Madonna.

But this isn’t show biz, it’s shoe biz. Forget technical advancements, comfort, quality of performance. In the war among athletic shoe manufacturers, the race is on to capture the most celebrities.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 18, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 18, 1990 Home Edition View Part E Page 4 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. Gear--A June 13 story in View incorrectly reported the earnings for L.A. Gear’s second quarter. In fact, the company announced it earned a profit during that period, but that its earnings were down as much as 40% from a year earlier.

Recall all the famous faces you’ve seen in recent commercials for running, dancing and working-out footwear. The list seems all but endless. Margot Kidder, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Victoria Jackson, even earthy Aretha Franklin, are now striking active poses for magazine ads featuring V-striped Tretorn tennies.

Along with Abdul and superstar Jackson, L.A. Gear products are plugged by Priscilla Presley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while basketball whiz Jordan and football/baseball switch hitter Bo “You Don’t Know Diddley” Jackson, along with Spike Lee, are stumping for Nike.

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VPs at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., are convinced that their company’s celebrity endorsement program helped it grab 26% of the total $5-billion athletic footwear market in 1989. VPs at Reebok, where sales of $1.8 billion worldwide were posted last year, say the same.

Negotiations with Madonna have been slowed by her recent worldwide concert tour. But Reebok executives hope for even greater financial reports in 1990 if they finally do book her, said Rob Apatoff, vice president of marketing for the Massachusetts-based company.

Just to show how intense the competition can be, Madonna is threatening to sue Nike for $4.25 million she says is owed her for an endorsement contract. Nike claims they did nothing more than talk about a contract.

The celebrity sell is hardly new, but with the plethora of younger stars now promoting athletic footwear, the trend is bigger than ever. Active wear companies concede, however, that such talents don’t come cheap.

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Michael Jackson is said to be collecting $20 million for his L.A. Gear endorsement, scheduled to blast across the airwaves as of August. The company’s marketing executives do not confirm or deny dollar estimates, but they do say celebrity endorsements are well worth their hefty price tags.

“You can have a great commercial, but your recognition factor is far higher with a celebrity,” said Sandy Saemann, executive vice president for L.A. Gear. Saemann added that the price his company pays to secure big names is not out of line, based upon the company’s costs of producing its slick commercials and buying air time.

L.A. Gear recently announced a loss of about $365 million in second-quarter profits, but Saemann said that was related to problems caused by sales of “promotional” or off-price models and had nothing to do with the high price the company pays for celebrity endorsements.

“Michael Jackson sold millions and millions of dollars in footwear,” for the company, he said. Another star in the L.A. Gear galaxy, San Francisco 49er Joe Montana, also did very well, he added.

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How are the celebrities selected? Methods and reasons vary from company to company. When it comes to lining up L.A. Gear’s roster, “gut feeling,” as well as the celebrity’s personal interest in the product plays a big role. And, of course, star quality is also a factor in deciding who gets tapped for a commercial role, according to Saemann, who is instrumental in making final decisions on L.A. Gear endorsements.

“If there is not a mutual admiration, and the striking of a friendship on a personal basis, then there’s no deal,” said Saemann. “I want to be able to drop by Joe’s,” he said, casually referring to Montana, “and see him wearing L.A. Gear shoes because he likes them.”

As for personal interest, a number of celebrity endorsers take a direct hand in styling the products they wear. Gear’s Saemann said Paula Abdul was “enticed” to sign with the company in May by offering her a signature line of active wear and sport shoes that she will be actively involved in designing.

Pro golfer Greg Norman, who wears and endorses Nike footwear and golf fashions while playing on the PGA tour, was encouraged to shape the look and style of the collection that features his name.

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“Like many of our other endorsers, he is very particular about what he wears,” said Apatoff.

Jordan had tremendous input into how the Air Jordan shoe would look, according to Fred Schreyer, director of sports marketing for Nike. He met with designers to give them his ideas and inspired their final product.

“When we’re talking about key guys like him, the shoes reflect the athlete,” he said. “The styles reflect their personalities and are built around their image.”

In a particularly pampering move, Nike offers bonuses, or performance incentives, to its team of celebrity endorsers. These are additional revenues promised if the endorsed product exceeds certain sales expectations. Some athletes have it in their contract that they also will receive extra dollars if their own career takes a giant leap forward.

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At Tretorn, a division of the Etonic company based in Brockton, Mass., the use of celebrity tie-ins is in its infancy. Only in the last three months have Margot Kidder, Aretha Franklin and Victoria Jackson appeared in ads.

Although not involved in developing the fashion look of her footwear, Jackson said, she did become involved in planning her photograph for the ad. She is pictured doing a handstand, in a shot that took quite some time to get right.

“I did the handstand for about an hour and a half,” said the blond New Yorker, who is the daughter of a gymnastics coach. “I guess I can’t blame them since it was my idea.”

Like many other celebrities who pose for athletic wear, Jackson gets her share of free Tretorns, a perk she prefers to the freebies she has received for appearing in other commercials. She didn’t care for the dozen free bottles of Amaretto liqueur she received when she posed in an ad for that company. “It’s pretty fattening,” she said of the after-dinner drink.

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In the past, the 25-year-old Tretorn company relied on sales to come from word of mouth and a cult following of college coeds and aging preppies. They decided to go the celebrity circuit, said marketing director Deborah Dumel, to woo a new target audience, aged 15 to 34.

“Up to now, we have been pretty low-key, but we are in a more competitive market these days,” Dumel said. “Celebrity connections appeal to the youth.”

While the others race to catch Nike, they aren’t exactly imitating that company’s approach, since it doesn’t often use Hollywood faces to peddle its products. Along with Bo Jackson, other current Nike endorsers include tennis stars John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, as well as American runners Joan Benoit, Lynn Jennings, and Patti Sue Plumer.

Not all of them are household names, but Nike isn’t worried. “If celebrities choose to wear our products, that is great. But they are not as important to the positioning of the brand as athletes are,” Schreyer said. “Most are well-known to our target audience, but that isn’t why we select them. We do it because they are authentically athletic.”

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At L.A. Gear, Saemann said, the game plan is to maintain its celebrity endorsement program with a diversified team of star representatives, to attract the company’s target market--an international audience. The line-up of sports figures, such as Abdul-Jabbar, Houston Rocket hoopster Akeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz basketball team, may appeal to American sports fans. But such music industry superstars as Abdul and Jackson, who have an international following, come in handy since, as Saemann put it, “Joe Montana just doesn’t play in Poland.”

But he might.

At least one jock who poses for Nike ads has picked up other work. “Bo Jackson, who has been used heavily in our ads, got an AT&T; commercial,” said Nike’s Schreyer. “We feel that the relationships are good for both parties.”


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