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Can Bo Sell if He’s Not Playing? Who Knows?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With superstar athlete Bo Jackson’s career on the field in doubt, where does that leave his off-the-field commercial career?

Even Bo doesn’t know. But after an injured Jackson was released Monday by the Kansas City Royals, some sports marketing experts said Jackson could actually emerge as an even bigger commercial star if his sports career is finished.

“The proportions of his legend would only increase,” said Ray Benton, vice chairman of Sport Partners International, an Arlington, Va.-based sports marketing firm. “He would become a huge sympathetic figure. His fame could achieve myth-like proportions.”

Not every athlete can become a legend in four years. It doesn’t hurt, of course, if you’re the only professional all-star in both football and baseball.

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The legend wore crutches Monday when he met with his doctor in Birmingham, Ala. Meanwhile, at a press conference in Haines City, Fla., the Royals announced his release from the team. Jackson said he still plans to play baseball--and maybe even football.

Jackson injured his hip when he was tackled after a long run during a Los Angeles Raiders playoff game in January. Since then, there has been speculation that Jackson is suffering from avascular necrosis, a potentially disabling condition that stops the blood flow to the bone. Injured or not, “if you say the word ‘Bo,’ everyone in the country knows what you’re talking about,” said Eddie Tapscott, client manager at the Washington-based sports marketing firm Advantage International.

Bo’s popularity “runs far, far beyond his popularity on the field,” said Fred Fried, vice president of marketing at ProServ, an Arlington, Va.-based sports marketer.

These assessments are good news not only for Jackson but for the three companies with which he has long-term commercial contracts: Nike, Pepsico and AT&T.; Jackson is in the second year of an estimated $3-million, three-year contract with Nike. And Pepsico and AT&T; also signed him to contracts that pay him an estimated $500,000 annually.

But not everyone thinks Jackson’s commercial career can survive if his playing days are over. “If he’s no longer busting through the line and running 60 yards or no longer hitting home runs in the All-Star game, I can’t see how just his personality would sustain him,” said Bob Kuperman, president of the Venice office of the ad agency Chiat/Day/Mojo.

For its part, Nike said it has no intention of changing its relationship with Jackson. “We have never canceled a contract because of an injury to an athlete,” said Elizabeth Dolan, a Nike spokeswoman. Indeed, even after Michael Jordan missed virtually the entire 1985-86 basketball season with a broken foot, Nike stuck with him.

But sales of the shoes that bear Jordan’s name slowed that year. That is one reason Nike has not given Jackson’s name to a particular shoe. Instead, it has simply associated him with both its cross-training shoe line and the Nike brand. Said Dolan, “Bo is someone the American public has gotten to know--and love.”

Indeed, Jackson has an “astoundingly high” level of familiarity and likability among Nike’s target market--teen-agers, said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y., research firm.

‘If he has box-office appeal, the injury could be the best thing that ever happened to him,” Levitt said. “If someone can make an actor out of him, he could have a new career.”

BO’S STATS OFF THE FIELD Three-year contract to do commercials for Nike: estimated $3 million

Other commercial contracts with Pepsico and AT&T;: estimated $500,000 a year

One-year contract with Kansas City Royals: $2.38 million *

Five-year contract with Los Angeles Raiders: $7.4 million

* The Royals announced Monday that they are releasing Jackson from his contract. He is to receive one-sixth of the total.

RANKING BO’S ‘LIKABILITY’

Bo may know sports, but he ranks below other athlete pitchmen in terms of “likability.” Q-ratings, which measure such things, are based on surveys of people familiar with a celebrity’s commercials.

1 Michael Jordan

2 Magic Johnson

Walter Payton (tie)

4 Joe Montana

5 Isiah Thomas

6 Julius Erving

7 Nolan Ryan

Dominique Wilkins (tie)

9 James Worthy

10 BO JACKSON

Greg Louganis

Jerry Rice (tie)

Source: Marketing Evaluations Inc.


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