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Will Magic Make a Comeback to Product Pitchman?

Advertising: A few firms are courting the Lakers star. But experts say image problems may discourage some marketers.

February 02, 1996|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earvin "Magic" Johnson's comeback as a basketball player may be easier than a return to celebrity spokesdom.

Once a pitchman for Pepsi Cola and Converse sneakers, the 36-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star faded on the endorsement circuit when he retired in 1991, citing his infection with the AIDS virus.

While his triumphant return to the Lakers this week indicates that attitudes toward AIDS have changed, Johnson has lingering image problems that could discourage national advertisers, experts said.

They said revelations about Johnson's past promiscuity with women and the on-again, off-again nature of his comeback are obstacles to companies looking for squeaky-clean, reliable endorsers.

"For anyone that markets to kids, and parents who influence the decision, there is conflict in terms of a role model," said Stephen L. Dissen, president of the the Washington sports consulting firm D&F Consulting. "They'll stay away."

But while mainstream advertisers might shy away, he said, trading-card and sports clothing firms might seek out Johnson.

Johnson isn't necessarily looking for work as a pitchman. His Magic Enterprises reportedly takes in $60 million a year. His agent, Lon Rosen, said he ranks among the top 10 athletes in terms of earnings, though he would not say how much Johnson earns from his various business interests. The Lakers are paying him $2 million to return to the team.

Rosen said that since Johnson announced his return, four companies have expressed interest in using Johnson in some capacity. He declined to name the companies, except to say that three are consumer product firms and one is sports-related.

"There have been companies that have moved away from him, but there are new ones that are moving in," Rosen said.

In his heyday, Johnson, one of the greatest NBA players ever, had a modest lineup of corporate deals. He continues to have business relationships with Pepsi and Spaulding but does not appear in advertising. His deal with Converse expired in 1994.

Pepsi sponsored "Magic's All-Stars," a traveling team of retired NBA players that played exhibitions in Europe last year, and it has contributed to Johnson's charitable AIDS education work.

The soft drink maker said there are no immediate plans to use Johnson as a spokesman. The last time Johnson appeared in a Pepsi commercial was in 1992.

"Magic is one of the most versatile members of the Pepsi team," Pepsi spokesman John Harris said. "When the opportunity makes sense for us, we'll make it happen."

Spaulding is considering making Magic Johnson signature balls again, which haven't been sold since 1993. Johnson's work with the sports equipment company has been mostly confined to appearances at trade shows, said Spaulding managing director John Doleva.

"Consumers are fickle," Doleva said. "They go with the people they see on the court." When Johnson retired, fans gravitated to stars such as Michael Jordan, he said.

Marketers may also prefer to stick with the new batch of stars, said Connecticut marketing consultant Jack Trout.

"There are so many stars out there without the image problems," he said. "I don't see anything happening unless he stays back full time and is winning and is absolutely knocking everything down."

Even then, Trout said, Johnson won't regain his status "as a big-time role model."

There are other factors that might keep Johnson off the promotion circuit, said Lee Fentress, managing director of Advantage International, a sports marketing firm in Virginia. He said marketers might question his commitment, since he has attempted a comeback once before.

"You don't know for sure what he's doing from one day to another," Fentress said. "The smile is still there, the talent is still there. There are questions about his perseverance."

That doesn't seem to be an issue for sports card manufacturers Topps and Upper Deck, which were rushing to include Magic Johnson in upcoming basketball card sets.

A handful of marketers that gambled on Johnson during his retirement are enjoying the prospect of big rewards now that he's back in the game.

Crystal Dynamics, a Silicon Valley electronics firm, reports a doubling of inquiries about an upcoming video game featuring Johnson.

"It's great timing; we couldn't be happier," said Scott Steinberg, marketing manager for Crystal Dynamics, which plans to introduce the game for the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation systems in the spring.

Steinberg said the company wanted Johnson for the video game because he remains one of the world's best-recognized athletes, despite his absence from the NBA.

"Quite frankly, AIDS was a non-issue for us," Steinberg said.

Johnson's return is giving a boost to a line of shoes, MVP by Magic, being launched this weekend at a trade show in Atlanta. The shoes are being marketed by a joint venture in which Johnson has an interest.

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