Given her astounding athletic accomplishments—as a senior at Texas Tech University, for instance, she broke Bill Walton’s record for the most points ever scored in a Division I NCAA basketball championship game—you might expect Sheryl Swoopes to be fashionably blasé about a four-year-old sneaker deal. But if you ask the Brownfield native what it was like when Nike told her the company wanted to name its new women’s basketball shoe Air Swoopes, she practically comes apart. “I was speechless,” she says excitedly, her words tumbling out faster than her feet take her down the court. “I cried. I bawled. At first I thought they were joking. I don’t even know what I thought. I was just out of it. I thought I was dreaming.”
If she was dreaming, she hasn’t woken up yet. Since Nike announced the launch of Air Swoopes at a New York press conference in the spring of 1995, its 28-year-old namesake has won a gold medal as part of the United States’ women’s Olympic basketball team and two championship rings with the Houston Comets of the Women’s National Basketball Association, married her high school sweetheart, become a mother, and perhaps most surprising, built an impressive endorsement portfolio. Through contracts with companies like Kellogg and products like Discover Card, personal appearances, and licensing deals—in addition to the original Air Swoopes, there have been three more versions of the shoe (a fifth will be in stores in July), three Swoopes basketballs, a Swoopes jersey, three Swoopes children’s books, a Swoopes coffee-table book, a Swoopes trading card, a Swoopes phone card, and even a Swoopes action figure—she pulled in an estimated $1.2 million in 1998, quite possibly the most money ever earned in a single year by a female athlete who plays a team sport.
In the complicated world of endorsements, several female athletes who compete individually earned more in 1998, including tennis star Steffi Graf (an estimated $5 million), ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi ($3 million), and skier Picabo Street ($2 million). And, not surprisingly, since professional sports is so heavily dominated by the other gender, many men earned more too. Michael Jordan, for instance, collected an estimated $17 million in endorsement contracts—the most of any athlete. In Texas alone six male athletes who compete in either individual or team sports topped Swoopes’s take (George Foreman, $4.5 million; Emmitt Smith, $3.5 million; Troy Aikman and Charles Barkley, $3 million; David Robinson, $2 million; and Hakeem Olajuwon, $1.5 million). But that doesn’t diminish what she has achieved. Sheryl Swoopes is the first female basketball player to become a marketplace star, making her $1.2 million a greater accomplishment than the others’ multimillions. The story of her rise from small-town Texas girl to one of the nation’s best-paid product-pitchers says a lot about her determination, and it says even more about the way endorsements work: who gets them, how much they’re worth, and why.
To understand Swoopes’ success, you have to know a little bit about why Nike and other companies partner up with athletes in the first place. In the most basic of terms, marketers use sports stars because consumers know them, admire them, and aspire to be like them. The logic of an endorsement deal is that an athlete’s association with a product will make consumers notice it and buy it either because they want to emulate their hero or because a certain kind of transference occurs in which the athlete’s positive qualities (such things as courage, charisma, and talent) are projected onto the cereal, shoes, or whatever is being sold. Of course, not every athlete makes this work. The trick for marketers is to find those who can. Though there are always exceptions, whether an athlete gets an endorsement deal depends on four key factors.
Ability Marketers want only the best athletes to endorse their products. That’s because companies want to be associated with winners. The better the athlete, the more likely it is that consumers know him and want to be like him.
Sport Which sport an athlete plays is important not because of the sport per se but because of the audience it attracts—or to be more precise, because of the size of the audience it attracts. Since marketers want athletes who are well-known, they focus on sports that have a mass following, extensive press coverage, and regular television exposure. Conversely, an athlete who plays a sport that is little seen and rarely written about isn’t going to get a deal. (How many women softball stars do you see endorsing soft drinks?) This is why, generally speaking, men’s basketball and football players tend to have large endorsement incomes: A lot of people see NBA and NFL players, on TV and in person, on a regular basis, ensuring that those players are instantly recognizable and have a rabid fan base. And when fans are rabid, they’re motivated to buy the products their heroes are associated with.
That said, audience size isn’t everything. Although more Americans watch pro football than pro basketball—last year the average TV ratings for the NFL and the NBA were 12.9 and 7.6, respectively—marketers seem to give a slight edge to basketball players. Why? “The advantage is there are only five men on the court on each side, and they are in continuous action, so you’re getting to watch them all the time,” explains Gerald Scully, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “In football there are eleven men on each side, and they are all covered up with helmets and padding.” No surprise, then, that while a few standout position players like Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys have made lucrative deals, quarterbacks tend to be the NFL’s endorsement kings, since they are usually the most visible. Whether an athlete plays a team or an individual sport also affects how marketers can use him because individual-sport athletes have more control over the equipment they use and the apparel they wear. Golfers and tennis players, for example, can choose their own clubs