As even casual sports fans are drawn into the Michael Jordan Watch, observers of the sports marketing industry predict that professional basketball will be hard-pressed to crown an heir apparent when Air Jordan grounds himself.
Jordan's star appeal is evident in the tidal wave of media coverage surrounding the Chicago Bulls' sixth championship. Fortune magazine has dubbed him the $10-billion man, and a Wall Street Journal columnist argues that "nobody today better embodies the American spirit" than the athlete-turning-businessman who is taking sports marketing to a new level.
"When it comes to sports and sports marketing, it's no longer enough to be handsome, articulate and good," said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing School at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "Hero appreciation is driven by superhuman performance, and now to be a hero you have to be a champion to the level that Jordan has set the bar at."
Whether smiling from the cover of Time magazine or serving as grist for a 12-page profile in New Yorker magazine, Jordan is basking in the kind of media coverage that's reserved for generational icons.
"He's head over heels above any other current athlete," said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based company that tracks how the public responds to celebrities. "There's no one out there right now in any sport who's shown the strength and consistency Michael Jordan has displayed over the years."
That isn't keeping fans and agents from floating names of those who might fill No. 23's shoes without tripping. Frequently mentioned successors are Lakers stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill and San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan.
Ever the businessman, Jordan has assembled his own list of up-and-comers, including players such as Seattle Supersonics forward Vin Baker, who coincidentally are under contract to wear Jordan's shoes on the court.
But industry observers say the NBA will never replace Jordan. Instead, the sport will wait, as did baseball and boxing, for legends capable of measuring up to greats such as Babe Ruth and Joe Louis.
"You're never going to duplicate Michael Jordan, because he's a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon," said Washington lawyer Lon Bibby, an advisor to Hill and Duncan. "And I don't think anyone is seriously aspiring to duplicate him.
"But there is an opportunity out there for someone who can be the next iteration of an important spokesperson for the league--which is where Grant Hill and Tim Duncan are going."
When Jordan does retire from the NBA, he'll remain uniquely positioned to work with an endorsement roster that includes familiar names like Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Gatorade and Oakley.
Jordan already markets everything from perfume to telephone service, but observers expect him to continue adding new corporate affiliations.
"There's still room for a super brand or two, like United Airlines . . . or Visa," said Bob Dorfman, sports analyst for Foote, Cone & Belding's sports marketing group, based in San Francisco.
Even in retirement, Jordan will have one foot in basketball. His shoes have a considerable following at the college and professional levels, and Nike's Jordan athletic apparel line has contracts to provide uniforms for three college teams.
And, while athletes' endorsement careers rarely stretch beyond their playing careers, many observers suspect that Jordan, like Muhammad Ali, will retain a place in the national consciousness.
"Who else is cooler than Michael Jordan?" asks Jennifer Black, an apparel and footwear industry analyst with Black & Co., a Portland, Ore.-based investment firm. "And he's not just a basketball player. He's a role model. And he could very well create a lifestyle brand."
Nike officials say Jordan is on their team whether or not he's playing basketball and that their contract extends well into the next century.
"The fact that he may or may not be playing ball will not have a major impact on the business," said Larry Miller, a Nike vice president who on Tuesday was named president of the company's new Jordan shoe and apparel line. "I know that's very unusual [for a sports figure], but I don't think anyone would disagree that Michael is a very unusual person."
Industry analysts say the Jordan line with the "Jumpman" logo could generate $300 million in revenue during its first year on the market. And Miller says the line won't be restricted to the basketball court.
"Given Michael's image, I think we could easily cross over into sportswear categories and ultimately go into women's and kids' products," Miller said. "If someone was looking to start a business today and they were going to pick one person to model it after, who better than Michael Jordan?"
In marketing jargon, the North Carolinian who signed with Nike 12 years ago has evolved into his own brand, one that's as well-known as many of the famous products he's opted to pitch.
"He's such an efficient marketer that the player has, in effect, become the product," said the University of Oregon's Burton. "It doesn't matter what he sells because he's selling himself--and he's selling in huge amounts. We go to the store hoping to buy Michael Jordan the way we used to want to buy a Coke or a can of Miller beer."
Fortune magazine's stab at the economic impact Jordan has had since joining the NBA 14 years ago: a staggering $10 billion. Quips Foote Cone's Dorfman: "Jordan is more productive economically than the entire country of Jordan."
How quickly the NBA finds its next big star might be determined in part by a labor dispute that could boil over early in July. Team owners are threatening to lock players out, and there's a good chance the dispute could stretch into the 1998-99 season.
Fortune's article suggests that Jordan has generated more than $3 billion in revenue for the NBA from increased attendance, merchandise sales and broadcast rights. But while the league is scrambling to market up-and-coming players, it faces the very real possibility that the nation's next sports hero will come from another league--or from outside the professional ranks.
And, as Burton notes, the NBA has been gradually pricing itself out of many fans' reach.
"Ticket prices for an NBA game in L.A. for a family of four now cost something like $230 with parking, food and everything else," Burton said. "One thing that [classical economist] Adam Smith said is that less efficient [businesses] will fail, and the NBA isn't very efficient compared to competitors elsewhere in the entertainment industry."
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Michael Jordan has pitched cereal, soft drinks, apparel and telephone service during his 13-year NBA career. Here are some of the companies that No. 23 has been affiliated with.
Nike: Athletic shoes and apparel
Wilson: Sporting goods
WorldCom: Telephone service
General Mills: Wheaties cereal
Quaker Oats: Gatorade
Coca-Cola: Soft drinks
Upper Deck: Trading cards