Heads up,, Michael Jordan. A 7-foot-1, 300-pound rookie center by the name of Shaquille (Shaq) O'Neal is mounting a serious attack on your marketing empire.
On Thursday, O'Neal and the Orlando Magic bring their road show to the Sports Arena, where they will meet the Los Angeles Clippers for the first time this year.
Unlike last season, when half the seats were empty, Thursday night's game is expected to be a sellout. Reason: O'Neal.
O'Neal--who seems destined for NBA and product endorsement stardom--couldn't have come at a better time. With Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Larry Bird recently retired from basketball--and Michael Jordan overexposed--marketers are hungry for a new superstar with personality. But marketing gurus also warn that only time can really test O'Neal's endorsement staying power.
"He's still a crap shoot," said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based advertising research firm. "The question is: Is he likable enough to expand beyond the sport of basketball?"
Basketball centers--usually the tallest men on the team--rarely make it as big-time product spokesmen. In addition to their unusual height, centers have tended not to be as graceful as other players and are often viewed by fans as less interesting to watch. "It's more difficult for fans to identify with them," said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Glen Mills, Pa.-based publication.
But several big-spending companies are wagering that O'Neal will be a hit.
Among those that have already signed O'Neal to endorsement contracts: Reebok (for athletic shoes and apparel), Spalding Sports Worldwide (a signature basketball), Classic Games Inc. (trading cards), Scoreboard Inc. (memorabilia) and Kenner Parker Toys (action figures).
From these early sponsors alone, he is expected to earn up to $30 million. That's within reach of the $40 million that Orlando will pay him to play basketball for the next seven years.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola and a major computer software firm are said to be negotiating furiously to land O'Neal, who left Louisiana State University one year early to play in the NBA and was the top draft pick in 1992.
In an unusual move, O'Neal's Los Angeles agent has hired an L.A. design firm to develop a "Shaq" logo that will appear on most products that O'Neal endorses.
"The object is for people to walk into a store, see this logo and know exactly what it means," said Leonard Armato, president of Management Plus. "It's similar to how kids might react when they see the Mickey Mouse logo--they know what it stands for."
But the big corporate push for O'Neal probably won't take place until much later in the season--if he can somehow lead his team into the playoffs.
"At that time, there would be a second-year gold rush toward him," said Brian Murphy, publisher of the Westport, Conn.-based Sports Marketing Letter.
O'Neal was unavailable for an interview. But his agent is well aware that the best may be yet to come.
"He'll only get better as a player and as a vehicle for marketing," Armato said.
Reebok, however, gambled early. The company had to because it had no endorsement superstars to compete with Nike's Michael Jordan.
In a bidding war, Reebok outbid Nike and L.A Gear for O'Neal's services and loaded O'Neal's estimated $20-million, five-year contract with incentives.
"It's a high-risk business," said John Morgan, vice president of product marketing at Reebok. "But it's not just a matter of who you have. It's a matter of what you do with him once you've got him."
In that light, Reebok has gone all out to create an ad campaign that won't soon be forgotten.
Reebok doesn't want to discuss the $25-million campaign until after the ad is scheduled to air during the NBA All Star Game in February.
But insiders say the first spot features five NBA legendary centers commenting on O'Neal--while watching him play. The big-name stars in the ad are: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Willis Reed and Bill Walton. O'Neal's father and UCLA coaching great John Wooden will also appear in the spot.
Even Reebok was caught unprepared for O'Neal's early NBA success. After O'Neal's first week playing for the Magic, when he averaged more than 26 points a game and led them to a string of victories, he was named the league's most valuable player for the week.
No one--not even Michael Jordan--had ever before received that honor during his first week in the league.
While Reebok has "Shaq Attaq" shoes in development--complete with graphite and an air pump that will cost about $135 per pair--the shoes are not expected to hit store shelves until March.
Not wanting to let the Christmas season escape with the shelves bare, Reebok is rushing out "Shaq Attaq" shirts and hats that are expected to be available sometime next week.
Executives at Scoreboard Inc. signed an unusual $3-million deal with O'Neal that makes it the only company that can put his face on basketball cards and his name on memorabilia.