September 23, 2011
Aside from that whole lockout thing, it's a terrific time to be an NBA fan. The league is full of great players of different shapes and sizes, from Chris Paul(notes) to LeBron James(notes) to Dwight Howard(notes). No matter your pleasure, you can find something to enjoy. It's a lot like Baskin-Robbins.
Yet, for all the greatness of the modern NBA, the most widely loved and known basketball player in the world retired more than eight years ago. Michael Jordan still commands a great deal of endorsement dollars -- put his name on a video game, shoe, or T-shirt and you're likely to sell more than you would otherwise.
We estimate that Jordan earned $60 million over the past year mainly through his endorsement deals with Nike, Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck, 2K Sports and Five Star Fragrances. He also owns five restaurants and a car dealership in North Carolina. His annual earnings are greater than any other sports figure save Tiger Woods who topped our world's highest-paid athletes this year.
At Jordan's peak during his playing career, he was making $50 million off the court through sponsorships. He also banked $63 million in combined salary during his last two years with the Bulls.
The reasons for this bump in profits go beyond simple concepts like "more companies pay him now" or "he now gets paid more by everyone." Jordan's relationship with Nike has only expanded over time, with his Jordan Brand becoming a major player perhaps topped only by the parent company itself. On top of that, his Hanes ads run regularly, and his role in "NBA 2K11" was a huge success. The man makes money because he moves product.
But why do fans care more about a retired player than someone who still makes All-Star teams every season and ranks among the league's scoring leader? The simplest answer is that Jordan was such a phenomenal athlete that he can't be treated like other retired basketball players; every basketball fan over the age of 20 watched him play at his peak level and remembers his exploits in sparkling detail.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find that fans can reach consensus on Jordan that's impossible with divisive players like Kobe Bryant(notes) and LeBron James. That's not to say that those two are bad endorsers -- they do pretty well with large portions of the public -- but Jordan stands far above all else. He's a cut above all others, the most successful endorser in sport history, if not that of all celebrities ever.
For that reason, it may be that there's nothing to learn from Jordan's post-retirement success as an endorser. He's both a product of a different media era and an athlete so hugely successful that it may be impossible for the NBA to produce anyone like him ever again.
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