Athletic shoemaker Nike Inc. on Friday scrapped a television ad and watched its stock price soar after one of its chief advertising spokesmen, Michael Jordan, threw a curveball at his corporate sponsors by quitting his short-lived baseball career and fueled speculation of a return to basketball. Jordan's surprise announcement comes less than two years after he shocked sports fans and marketing executives by retiring from a legendary basketball career and then taking to a less-than-impressive run as a professional baseball player.
His possible return to the basketball court could help boost lagging sales of basketball shoes and assist Nike in its current turnaround, advertising and marketing officials said. But the potential gains for Nike and his other sponsors--including Gatorade sports drink, McDonald's hamburgers and Hanes underwear--will probably be short-lived.
"I think Nike will get a bump from it," said New York advertising executive Hal Katz of a possible Jordan return to basketball. But "the market (for basketball shoes) is saturated. I don't think that in this country it will have as much of an impact as they would like."
Nike shares jumped $1.50 to $76.50 in Friday trading.
Despite his departure from basketball in 1993, Nike has continued to feature Jordan in its advertising and sell the "Air Jordan" line of shoes, which generated more than $200 million in sales by the time Jordan left the court.
"It has continued to do very strongly," said Nike spokesman Keith Peters. Nike has no plans yet to begin creating any basketball related ads or promotions featuring Jordan, Peters said. "We will wait and see what Michael does next."
Jordan's surprise decision to quit baseball forced Nike to cancel a week-old television commercial that focused on his struggle to reach baseball's major leagues. The commercial, directed by film maker Spike Lee, included current star Ken Griffey Jr. and Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Willie Mays watching Jordan practice.
While Nike pulled its campaign, Gatorade moved up the debut of an ad showing Jordan on a mythical search for the meaning of life. The company will run the ad--in which Jordan runs across deserts and mountains to meet with a guru--on Sunday's National Basketball Assn. broadcasts, instead of waiting until next month as originally planned.
Jordan's talent on the court and his public appeal is a rare combination that makes him a valuable public persona for his sponsors, said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports business publication. "It's quite an awesome combination."
But some marketing specialists argue that the large endorsement fees paid to sports stars and celebrities--Jordan reportedly earns more than $30 million annually from corporate sponsors--are much less effective.
Many young consumers are increasingly cynical about athletes as pitchmen, and the greater scrutiny paid to public figures poses additional risks, said Marian Salzman, director of emerging media at Chiat Day advertising agency in New York.
All these people are accidents waiting to happen in an era where the most minor deviations are blown out of proportion, Salzman said. "Michael Jordan has everything to lose and very little to gain by coming back to the sport."
In fact, some industry analysts said Nike no longer needs Jordan as much as it did in its early years when its brand name was relatively new. In addition, Nike has established a growing line of outdoor shoes and other products to help offset a decline in basketball shoes.
"They have actually gotten away from the endorsement thing," said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, an industry trade publication. "They have tried to do much more brand-oriented advertising. Nike is going to have a hell of a year with or without Michael Jordan."
* BACK TO BASKETBALL?
Jordan quits baseball. C1