Before Michael Jordan, before Bo Jackson, before Joe Montana, it was O.J. Simpson who led the way for pro sports team stars to emerge as corporate marketing heroes.
Back in 1975, before anyone had even heard of the term sports marketing , Hertz tapped Simpson as its spokesman and emerged as one of the first giant corporations to stake its name on a top-line athlete. That link, best remembered for images of Simpson dashing through airports, helped Hertz cement its No. 1 status.
But now, as police are investigating the possibility of his involvement in the slayings of his ex-wife and a male companion, sports marketing experts say that even if Simpson’s name is cleared, his product endorsement career may be a shambles.
“Sponsors have an allergy to controversy,” said Brian Murphy, editor of the Westport, Conn.-based Sports Marketing Letter. “Their eyes get red and they want it out of their way immediately.”
Hertz Corp., which continues to have a long-term contract with Simpson, is scrambling to figure out how to control the damage. Hertz officials declined Tuesday to comment about past, present or future affiliations with Simpson. But sports marketing experts say that Hertz and other companies linked to Simpson all have morals clauses written into their contracts that give them an opportunity to drop Simpson if his conduct is deemed inappropriate.
In any event, Hertz is expected to at least temporarily suspend its use of Simpson in all advertising and marketing campaigns. “It would be in pretty bad taste to run the ads right now,” said Alan Friedman, editor of the Chicago-based newsletter Team Marketing Report.
“Hertz did for O.J. what Nike did for Michael Jordan,” said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Glen Mills, Pa., newsletter. “It made him into a personality.”
Simpson often appears at Hertz corporate meetings--as well as other corporate gatherings--as a motivational speaker. One marketing expert estimates that Simpson, who is one of the few pro football players to emerge as a top product spokesman, commands up to $10,000 for speeches.
Besides Hertz, Simpson later signed on to endorse TreeSweet orange juice, Napa Naturals soft drinks and Wilson footballs. He recently signed on to endorse the Pro Athletes Golf League tour and its line of golf wear.
Since 1989, Simpson has also been an analyst on NBC’s pregame TV show “NFL Live.”
Thousands of footballs with Simpson’s name on them were sold by Wilson Sporting Goods during much of Simpson’s football career. “It ranked among the top three or four best-selling models we’ve ever sold,” said Jim Calhoun, director of advertising and public relations. “We have no regrets about our association with O.J.”
Simpson, who was appropriately nicknamed “Juice,” also had a five-year contract with TreeSweet Products to promote its lines of citrus juice. That deal expired in 1990, just two years before Simpson was advised by doctors to stop drinking orange juice because its acidity was harmful to his arthritic knee.
Executives at Seneca Foods Corp., which now owns the brand, declined to comment Tuesday.
On July 31, Simpson is scheduled to do pregame analysis for 1994’s first preseason NFL game to be broadcast on NBC. He last appeared on NBC with a pregame analysis for the Jan. 30 Super Bowl game.
An NBC spokesman declined to comment on Simpson except to say: “The prayers and thoughts of everybody at NBC are with the Simpson family.”
Sports marketing experts say that if Simpson had emerged as a superstar in the mid-1980s instead of the mid-1970s--when sports marketing began to hit its stride--he would probably have been a giant among athlete endorsers.
Then again, Murphy said, “if there’s any truth to these latest allegations, product endorsements are the least of O.J.'s problems.”