Sports apparel has long been a source of revenue for teams and players alike. Many athletes make more money from their endorsement deals than they do in salaries and wages. The top endorsement contracts are more ridiculous than the salaries that leave our jaws agape on a regular basis. LeBron James has a $90 million Nike contract and David Beckham received $161 million from Adidas for a lifetime of servitude. Yes, that’s correct, a lifetime contract. Anna Kournikova, the former pin-up star and occasional tennis player, was offered $50 million over 6 years. The catch was that she needed to win, and since she never won a singles tournament in her life, she ended up taking home the $3 million guaranteed signing bonus. Tiger Woods, the disgraced golfer, was making a cool $20 million from Nike alone at the height of his stardom. Even after his fall from grace, he managed to take home $70 million in endorsements from a variety of sources. Startling numbers, really.
But how did this all come about? Companies have long sought to have their names associated with famous people. The sports world is no different. The first endorsement from an athlete was baseball player Honus Wagner signing a deal in 1905 with Louisville Slugger, baseball’s most famous and enduring bat manufacturer. Joe Namath, the NFL legend, famously did a panty-hose commercial and one of Pepsi’s most memorable advertisements had Pittsburgh Steelers great ‘Mean’ Joe Greene share a Pepsi with a little kid. But sports apparel is where they’ve really made their mark. Since the 1980’s, when the marketing geniuses were able to convince weekend warriors and couch potatoes that the quickest way to be one with your favorite athlete is to wear the same clothes as them, things have really taken off.
The Nike Air Jordan was first unleashed on the public in 1985. The demand was instant and massive. The NBA had a ban on colored shoes, all white was the league’s stance at the time. Jordan refused to submit to the league and was fined $5,000 per game that he wore his namesake sneakers. Nike used the publicity from the league reaction and very proudly and publicly paid the fines. A star was born (who, Jordan or Nike?) and would soon take over the world. Nike, as we all know has since become the world’s largest sports apparel, shoes, and equipment manufacturers. Jordan has, of course, become the most recognizable athlete in the world, and arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. The two were a match made in heaven.
But what impact does this have on society? Since I was a kid you would hear stories of teens getting robbed and murdered for their shoes. The first edition of the Air Jordan sold for $65 dollars in 1985. My first full-time job in about 1994 paid me $4.25 an hour, by 40 hours, equals, $170 a week, minus taxes and we’ll say $150…or slightly more than a pair of Air Jordans at the time. Just recently Nike released a new sneaker and the results were devastating. In Atlanta alone, 12 people were robbed outside of a mall, lining up for the right to buy the shoes. 2 people were killed outside of another mall. A quote from a local news source,
$5000 for a funeral because someone was killed over $200 sneakers that were produced for $10
Creating demand for a product, in areas with limited means to purchase said products, which are no better than the other products out there, to line Michael Jordan and Nike’s pockets, is of questionable ethical practice. That is Nike’s game, though, creating demand for its product whenever and wherever possible, despite the fact that most of us have no need for top-level basketball shoes. Jordan, on the other hand makes outrages sums of money through all avenues legally possible. He played basketball, helped coach and manage teams, sold Buicks to old people, helped Gatorade get famous. Why market $200 shoes in ghettos? When is enough, enough, Michael?
Nike’s dubious labor record is another point of contention. The backlash in the late nineties was so strong that Nike was on the defensive at all times. The accusations are that Nike began using sweatshop labor in Taiwan and South Korea in the 70’s. As those nations became more industrialized, and their economies more advanced, Nike was forced on a trip around the world to find cheap labor sources, settling on Indonesia and Indochina. In Indonesia, a month’s wages at factories that produce goods for Nike could not buy a pair of Air Jordans for the workers. Nike has admitted some wrong-doing, but claims that everything is outsourced and that they cannot always police these matters. And it’s true, they can’t. The ethical thing to do is to pull work from these factories upon evidence of wrongdoing. Yet, the profit motive is too strong.
In another marketing coup for the Nike Corporation, they’ve been able to paint themselves as environmental crusaders. Phoenix Suns superstar Steve Nash, was signed-up to endorse a new product called Trash Talk. It is a sneaker, revamped from a previous model, that is comprised completely from manufacturing wastes. Steps like these are what give Nike its reputation as one of the most environmentally friendly corporations in the world. Never mind that the rest of it’s products are not environmentally friendly, let alone the environmental costs of doing business and manufacturing on the other side of the globe, and then shipping the product via petroleum-based shipping methods. Nor do the countries they do business in have the most sterling environmental records. But as long as Steve Nash says they’re OK, then they’re OK, right?. Nash has done plenty of good things and is known for his various charity work, including such diverging endeavors as bringing attention to the plight of children in war-torn African countries and getting more girls involved in organized sports. Add making Nike Kosher to his resume.
What is the alternative to the Nike machine? Is there an alternative? One shoe of note is the Starbury, released by one of my least favorite players in 2006. Stephon Marbury grew up in Brooklyn and remembers never being able to have the latest shoes and, inspired by a college professor, decided to make a shoe affordable to the inner-city kids who are one of the prime consumers for basketball shoe manufacturers and retailers. The shoe sells for $15 and is made from the exact same materials as it’s more expensive counterparts. The shoe is made in China, a country with 2 billion feet, but with third party oversight to ensure it’s ethically produced and free from the problems that plague Nike, and more importantly the workers in its factories. Marbury, at the height of his fame lent his name to the shoe and even travelled to malls across the country on a tour to promote the shoe and its benefits. All without pay. Oddly enough, Marbury himself now works in China, having recently won the CBA championship with the Beijing Ducks.
It’s nice to see an athlete use their fame for something good. I don’t mean simply bringing attention to some global problem by showing up at million-dollar gala events held in the problem’s honor. He identified a problem in his community, and tackled it using the resources he had available. Michael Jordan on the other hand, will continue to sell anything from hot dogs, to underwear, to vacuum cleaners to Big Macs to anyone who’ll listen. Are you listening?