A History of Athletes, Branding and Sports Recommendations

At 37, LeBron James is a billionaire, earning through endorsements nearly four times what he earned as a professional basketball player. James has transcended his talents on the hardwood to incredible heights in the business world.

As we see in The Manual, today’s top athletes make fortunes not just by endorsing products and services, but by owning them. This unprecedented athletic wealth is a legacy passed down to them through the history of sport. Before LeBron produced movies and Magic owned part of the Dodgers, there were Michael, Tony and Stacy, Don, Chuck, Babe, Honus and archaic athletes leading the way. Come on a journey to learn the colorful history of sports endorsements.

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The elders

An ancient depiction of the Greek Olympic runners
The History of Ancient Nations – A Textbook for High Schools (1912)

According to Tufts University’s Perseus Project, former Olympians did not receive monetary compensation for their efforts, but champions received the treatment of modern sports celebrities at home. His success (or her, in rare cases) has led to fame, reputation and perks such as meals paid for by the local government, front-row theater seats and even private gym privileges. .

While these trappings may have been pleasing, the downside could be significant in classical Greece. The Perseus Project tells the story of an Olympic winner changing city allegiance from Crotona to Syracuse as an ode to the latter’s ruler. When he won gold, the citizens of Croton were so angry at his reclassification that they tore down the athlete’s statue and turned his home into a jail.

The first one

Honus Wagner swinging one of his Louisville Slugger bats for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1913
Library of Congress.

Fast forward about two millennia into modern times, we find the first endorser, Honus Wagner. Multiple sources cite the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop as the first athlete to endorse a sports product, circa 1905. A decade earlier, when Wagner played for the Louisville Colonels, he befriended Bud Hillerich . Man began producing bats in 1894, with names engraved on them to identify their owners. When Hillerich decided to start selling his Louisville Slugger to the general public, the company paid Wagner $75 to use his signature on his bats. Today, the majority of MLB players use namesake clubs.

Card collectors might also note American Tobacco’s T206 Wagner trading card which sold for around $6.6 million in 2021, the most expensive ever sold. The rarity of the card is now apocryphal as to why Wagner ceased production. Theories range from his reluctance to associate himself with cigarettes to anger at not receiving money for his image from the tobacco company.

During his career, Wagner also peddled gum, sold sodas, peddled gunpowder, retailed razors, and even lent his image to cigar brands; a true pioneer decades before NIL (name, image, likeness) rights even existed.

The lifer

Gene Sarazen in 1922
Library of Congress

Legendary golfer Gene Sarazen pioneered the decades-long endorsement deal, paving the way for athletes like David Beckham to sign a lifetime deal with Adidas. In 1922, Sarazen became the first member of the Wilson Advisory Staff, signing a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods that would last for 75 years, which is the longest running endorsement deal ever. The contract would enrich both parties.

Developing a new club in secret, Sarazen debuted a stick whose head could “slide through the sand” at the 1932 British Open. The so-called R-90 sand wedge would go on to sell 50,000 units for Wilson. It was the first and most popular sand wedge in golf for years.


Chuck Taylor playing basketball in his eponymous shoes in 1921
Creative Commons

In 1917, Converse became one of the first companies to produce basketball shoes. In 1922 they redesigned the shoe and created an icon in the process.

At the time, Chuck Taylor was a semi-pro basketball player with the Akron Firestones, who took a sales job at Converse to make a living. Knowing the limitations of early iterations of basketball shoes, Taylor had several ideas on how to improve Converse’s shoe. Less than a year after he was hired, Converse listened and redesigned the top to improve ankle support and flexibility. Thus, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star and the nation’s first athlete-approved kick was born.

Taylor traveled the country to promote the All Star, exhibiting his advantages in basketball clinics which also helped increase the sport’s popularity. In the 1930s, the Chuck Taylor established itself as the must-have basketball shoe and in 1932, Converse stamped the man’s name in sports history, putting their signature on the sneaker’s classic star-studded ankle patch.

The barrier breaker

Babe Didrikson playing golf on August 13, 1947
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Babe Didrikson was one of the young nation’s first multi-sport athletes and sports superstars, excelling in bowling, boxing, diving, handball, softball, swimming, figure skating, billiards and even soccer . When asked if there was anything she hadn’t played, Didrikson replied, “Yeah, dolls.”

She won gold medals in the 100 meter hurdles and javelin and a silver medal in the high jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Didrikson built on these accomplishments into a lucrative career influenced by a public image refined. Legend has it, however, that it started almost by accident.

When it purchased a Dodge after its Olympic success, Chrysler decided to capitalize on Didrikson’s notoriety by running an advertisement featuring the star athlete praising the car’s benefits in the February 1, 1933 edition of the Chicago Daily. News. The Amateur Athletic Union deemed this a punishable offense and promptly suspended Didrikson from amateur competition without a hearing.

Later that year, Didrikson turned pro and later signed with Chrysler to promote Dodge coupes at the Detroit Auto Show. Showing keen business acumen, Didrikson took the opportunity to secure deals with P. Goldsmith Sons and Wheaties in 1935, another from Timex, and a lifetime contract with Wilson Sporting Goods in 1947.

The millionaire

Don Carter circa 1955 Bowling Press Photo National Match Game Champ 1953 and 1954
Public domain

Who was the first athlete to win a million dollar endorsement? Why a bowler, of course.

Don Carter, another stellar athlete, was known for his unmistakable right-hand swing, which he developed while trying to build arm strength as a player for Philadelphia A’s Baseball Farm Club. 1950s until the mid-1960s, a time when bowling was one of the nation’s favorite family activities, Carter dominated the sport after bowling 2 to 10 hours a day for years. He won Bowler of the Year six times and was a hugely popular figure at a time when bowling was a favorite family pastime.

In 1964, this dominance led to the first endorsement deal worth $1 million. Carter signed with bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite, which released the Don Carter Gyro-Balanced Ball. At the top of the game, Carter was already earning over $100,000 from other endorsements and exposures. In 1970, bowling writers named Carter the greatest bowler of all time.

Skateboard punks

Team Z-Boys at the Del Mar Nationals, 1975
Dogtown and Z-Boys (dir. Stacy Peralta, 2001)

In the late 1960s, The Van Doren Rubber Company was founded in Anaheim, California, around the same time that skateboarding was taking hold in Southern California. Skaters started using “Vans” shoes because the “non-slip” rubber bottom gave them better grip on the board. As the shoe began to symbolize the skating lifestyle, the shoe company took notice.

In 1975, Vans teamed up with local skateboarding legends Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta to design the Vans Era. The new model would eventually sport a padded collar for ankle support and a tight toe box for better board grip. The era took off, and by the late 1970s, Vans had expanded across the state with over 70 stores, while the Z-Boys of Alva and Peralta changed the sport. The shoe has crossed national borders, single-handedly creating the skate shoe industry, and inspiring countless other skate shoe designs.

The era is still one of the most popular shoes in modern skating culture, while Alva and Peralta remain professional skaters and some of the sport’s foremost ambassadors after dominating in their era.

the original

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls 1984
Tom Berg/WireImage/Getty Images

In 1984, Phil Knight’s struggling running shoe company signed third NBA draft pick Michael Jordan to an unprecedented $500,000 a year contract. The athlete accepted only after being rebuffed by his first choice.

Michael Jordan was a self-proclaimed “Adidas fanatic since high school,” but the cobbler wanted a big man, not a shooting guard, so Jordan reluctantly chose to sign with Nike instead. The deal granted Jordan his own shoe line. Now, the modern era of sneaker endorsement is born.

In 1985, the Jordan I was released in red and black to match the Chicago Bulls uniform. The color scheme was banned by NBA commissioner David Stern for not aligning with league uniform rules (they didn’t feature enough white). The controversy created a marketing monster as Jordan continued to wear the shoes during games. Even though he was fined each time, Nike happily paid the penalties, dubbed the shoes banned, and shaped an endorsement strategy around spinoffs. The Jordan I would go on to sell over $130 million in revenue this season and launch the best-selling shoe of all time, sported by (arguably) the greatest basketball player of all time.

In 2021, the Jordan brand generated more than $4.7 billion in revenue, or 13.17% of Nike’s wholesale revenue.

Today, athletes can endorse almost anything, whether it’s sneakers, sports gear, apparel, watches, shaving cream, tires, Rust-Oleum, or sticks. of fish. The future of athletes and sponsors remains lucrative thanks to the pioneers who came before them.

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