It took Michael Jordan nearly six years, but he's finally come out victorious in the long-running Chicago court case over the use of his identity without permission in a grocery store advertisement.
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A jury of Jordan's peers — ha! — ruled Friday in favor of the Chicago Bulls legend and Charlotte Hornets owner, ordering a grocery-store chain to pay the Hall of Famer $8.9 million for the unapproved and unlicensed use of his name in an ad. The decision brings an end to a legal action that actually outlived the supermarket that ran the ad in a special edition of Sports Illustrated commemorating His Airness' enshrinement in Springfield, Mass.
As we laid out a couple of summers ago, the beef stems from steak:
When Jordan was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, and prior to the wildly inappropriate speech he gave in the induction ceremonies, local Chicago grocery chain Dominick’s released an ad congratulating Jordan on his accomplishment, while pointing out that, while you’re at it, you can use your Dominick’s card or a coupon in the ad to take in the tasty two dollar savings on a “Rancher’s Reserve Steak.”
Here's the ad that launched a thousand briefs (no Hanes):
Jordan found out about it and decided to sue Dominick's for $5 million. The real kicker for Safeway, which bought Dominick's in 1998 for $1.2 billion, comes courtesy of ESPN.com's Darren Rovell:
In addition, the ad itself was of little benefit to the company. Since the ad was in a commemorative Sports Illustrated issue, those who bought the magazine were hesitant to tear out the ad. Only two people were found to have redeemed the $2 steak coupon.
Not exactly a killer return on investment, there.
While one judge took Jordan to task for attempting to make a "legal mountain" from a "legal molehill" by calling for Safeway, the parent company of the now-defunct Dominick's chain, it always seemed that the case had merit. Dominick's did use Michael Jordan's name without his permission in an ad aimed at selling discounted steaks; it stands to reason that this would irk M.J., considering he's already in the business of selling his own steaks.
Plus, as our Eric Freeman noted earlier this week, "the chain does not deny wrongdoing," meaning the main matter left to resolve was how much money to award Jordan. From Michael Tarm of The Associated Press:
Steven Mandell, the Dominick's attorney, [...] said Jordan's attorneys overvalued their client's name, saying jurors should award Jordan no more than $126,900.
Evidence presented during trial provided a peek at Jordan's extraordinary wealth, including the $480 million he made from Nike alone between 2000 to 2012.
That evidence included testimony from sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, who pegged the "fair market value" of Jordan's identity at about $10 million per business deal. That squared with the testimony of Estee Portnoy, the marketing executive who's been described as Jordan's "consigliere" and "the buffer between Jordan and the world", and who said Jordan will not do business with anyone unless the deal will ultimately be worth more than $10 million. (Subsequent answers, however, indicated that M.J. occasionally makes exceptions to that platinum rule.)
After six hours of deliberation, the jurors settled on a figure far closer to Jordan's $10 million asking price than Safeway's sub-$150,000 figure; at one point, according to Tarm, they sent a note to the judge reading, "We need a calculator." Those zeroes sure do add up, after all.
"I'm pleased with today's verdict," Jordan said in a statement. "No one — whether or not they're a public figure — should have to worry about their identity being used without their permission. The case was not about the money as I plan to donate the proceeds to charity. It was about honesty and integrity. I hope this case sends a clear message, both here in the United States and around the world, that I will continue to be vigilant about protecting my name and identity. I also hope the size of the monetary reward will deter others from using someone else's identity and believe they will only pay a small penalty."
If nothing else, it certainly gives Jordan and his representatives encouragement to continue their concerted efforts to protect M.J.'s brand, image and likeness from those who might look to leverage those valuable assets for their own benefit.
Jordan recently lost a trademark lawsuit against a Chinese footwear company he claimed was using a name and logo similar to his Nike brand, but he's still got one big iron in the fire: a suit filed at the same time as the one against Dominick's, calling Jewel Food Stores to task for running a similar ad featuring a pair of Air Jordan basketball sneakers with Jordan's number 23 on the tongues, juxtaposed with a congratulatory message capped with Jewel's "just around the corner" slogan.
That case has also wended its way through the courts for more than a half-decade, and is scheduled to go to trial in December. Depending on how quickly things move, that could mean a very happy holiday season for more Chicago-area charities.
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