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This Is No Time to Let Hair Down

Detroit Piston Ben Wallace could land profitable endorsement deals if he stays clear of a barber

June 16, 2004|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

He has NBA game and ABA hairstyle, and if Ben Wallace cuts his locks anytime soon, he might be throwing away endorsement deals like so many clippings on a barbershop floor.

Wallace's 'do, a funky marriage of the Don King and Artis Gilmore looks accessorized with a Slick Watts headband, may well be the symbol of the Detroit Pistons' championship.

It may also be his ticket to your TV screen in 30- to 60-second increments.

Wallace has a chance to catapult into the marketing mainstream, and the NBA could use his presence. There are few NBA stars endorsing anything on TV these days, other than the NBA itself.

Tim Duncan? Nondescript.

Kevin Garnett? Looks mean.

Allen Iverson? Trouble.

Kobe Bryant? Don't ask.

But can a short series such as the NBA Finals or the World Series, or a single game such as a Super Bowl, create a merchandising star?

Sports agent Leigh Steinberg points to Troy Aikman's most-valuable-player performance in the 1993 Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys as the lightning rod in his successful endorsement career.

It's possible this series could do the same for Wallace, Chauncey Billups or both as the Pistons reined in the Lakers' "dynasty." Among them, experts say Wallace has a distinct advantage.

A hard-working, athletic, blue-collar player, Wallace, though much smaller, didn't back down from Laker superstar Shaquille O'Neal. That alone makes him a likable underdog -- but it's only part of the reason he has potential as a pitch man.

"Ben Wallace has one facet to him that transcends the game; he's sort of a character," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You flip the dial, you see his persona, you think he's a unique identity, and that's the first step: People have to be interested in what you have to say or what you are as a person.

"People have to know you exist."

Swangard knows first-hand the power of Wallace's potential influence. He was recently at home watching one of the games in the Finals when his wife asked, "What's going on with his hair?"

Others, Swangard assumes, are asking the same thing. And while Wallace's hair might be the first thing a casual fan -- or even a CEO -- might notice, if it causes Wallace to be watched more closely, that could translate into a marketing opportunity.

"We have a celebrity-creation machine that now can move into overdrive once the series ends," Steinberg said. "Much will depend on how Wallace functions within it. That machine consists of dozens of talk shows, magazines and newspapers all dedicated to the concept of interesting people.

"What we haven't seen yet is Ben Wallace's personality emerge."

Single-game or short-series success, though, doesn't guarantee merchandising riches:

* Larry Brown -- the Dallas Cowboy cornerback, not the Pistons' coach -- intercepted three passes in the 1995 Super Bowl and hasn't been heard from since.

* Tom Brady won two Super Bowl MVPs, but can anyone outside New England recognize him without his helmet -- or his jersey?

* Could Florida's Josh Beckett or the Angels' Troy Glaus, the last two World Series MVPs, get noticed in Kansas City?

"I'm not going to reward a player because he won an NBA title," Swangard said, mimicking corporate heads, "I'm going to reward him because he can move product."

There's at least one exception to winning and moving product. Tennis player Anna Kournikova didn't win anything.

Still, Wallace has a chance to galvanize his spot in the marketing mainstream. With the Olympics approaching, he will have a world stage if rumors of his eventual involvement prove true, and that's exactly what Wallace needs to become a megastar.

"The Olympics has the mind share of the masses for those 17 days," Swangard said.

"There's such a sizable investment from corporate partners in the Olympics, they're always looking for ways to carry their marketing investment past the Games."

Mary Lou Retton in 1984 and decathlete Bruce Jenner in 1976 are perhaps the most visible examples of Olympians who turned "a short series" into fame and fortune by pitching product.

Swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Games, didn't.

He was "the most vivid example," of unrealized marketing potential because of "a really tough outing" on television, Steinberg said. "I don't want to be mean, but he was incredibly good looking, he had just won seven gold medals, and he was stiff and wooden on the Bob Hope show.

"It never worked out for him after that, being a major endorsement star."

All of which should provide a lesson to Wallace if he finds himself presenting at the MTV awards. Wear the headband, and stay loose.

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