by Mike Butler
Ever since Michael Jordan retired from playing basketball, there had been discussion about who the top athlete is when it comes to product endorsement. In 1997, Jordan made $47 million in endorsements alone. Who could be the heir to His Airness?
No one had to wait too long for the answer. It was clear even in `97. All one had to do is look at second place on the top endorsement list. He pulled in $24 million in endorsements that year. That athlete was Tiger Woods.
It is no secret that America loves young, charismatic and successful athletes and Woods fits all of those criteria all to well. And so it’s no surprise that Nike, who practically built themselves on the endorsing power of Jordan, was more than willing to make Woods their new top athlete endorser. Woods gets $20 million a year from Nike, a price that is bound to meteorically rise as Woods continues to dominate the PGA Tour.
But man can not live on Nike and winning golf tournaments alone, so that is why Woods also has lucrative deals with such companies as General Motors, Rolex, American Express, Electronic Arts, and General Mills. Combined with his Nike deal, these other endorsements netted Woods $54 million dollars last year. Now recently he has inked a deal with Disney to be a spokesperson for them. The terms have yet to be made public.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a golfer is the top product endorser in sports. Golfers like Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus make exponentially more in endorsements than they do in golf tournaments. Even though Palmer, Norman and Nicklaus are not young, they are highly charismatic and were highly successful in their prime, setting most of the records that Woods is breaking today.
In these present times where women’s sports are becoming just as prominent as the men’s are, female athletes are also enjoying the fruits of product endorsement.
Venus and Serena Williams are the tennis world’s version of Tiger Woods: Young, charismatic, and successful with the added novelty of being sisters. They recently signed a three-year $7 million deal to promote Wrigley’s Double Mint gum, the first athletes to do so in Wrigley’s 87-year history. They already have deals with Avon and Nortel Networks.
But what the Williams sisters do together is nothing compared to what they do separately. While Serena has a modest deal with Puma, Venus currently has the biggest endorsement deal of any female athlete ever with Reebok, a $40 million contract over five years.
These recent deals have put Venus ahead of Anna Kournikova in terms of endorsement money. Kournikova, the one women’s tennis player more popular than the Williams sisters, almost follows the same formula as the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods, being young and charismatic, even more so than the Williams sisters, but is nowhere near as successful as they are.
But women’s tennis players aren’t the only ones who make big money with endorsements. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras practically double, if not triple, their tournament winnings with endorsement deals. Even when Agassi was slumping in the `90s, he was still making almost $10 million in endorsements.
Even with Jordan gone, basketball players are still near the top of the money list when it comes to endorsements. Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill have been the top players in product endorsement since Jordan’s departure. Add that money to their already lavish contracts with their respective teams and there is little wonder why O’Neal and Hill are always in the top ten on Forbes Top 40 money-making athletes list.
Over the past twenty years, a lot of people have been questioning whether athletes are playing more for the money than for the joy of the game. Now those people have to question whose money are these athletes playing for: the team’s or Nike’s.