Jocks on the Rocks

When sports celebs head to the penalty box, their endorsements may be yanked, too.

Turn on the television, open the paper or click on the radio, and you'd be hard pressed to avoid seeing/reading about/listening to some athlete selling something. Companies will use jocks to hawk just about anything these days (Ed McCaffrey is an expert on mattresses why?), no matter their age (Dick Butkus is still alive?) or win-loss record (Anna Kournikova hasn't won a major tennis tournament but earns an estimated $12 million a year in endorsements).

For reasons best left to marketing psychologists and tenured sociology professors, when a company teams up with the right sports star, its fortunes can soar. Sales of Nike sports apparel doubled after Tiger Woods started wearing the swoosh, even though the same duds had been draping professional golfers Peter Jacobson and Curtis Strange years before Woods ever took his college boards.

But athletes like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and John Elway -- successful, popular competitors who also appear to be model citizens -- are the exception rather than the rule. So what happens when sponsorships go bad? How fast will your sneakers/jackets/sports drinks fly off the shelves when your poster boy is photographed slam dancing nude with a porn star or gets busted outside a nightclub at 3 a.m. with enough crack rocks to pave a driveway?

It's not unheard of. Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis reportedly booted several lucrative deals last year when he turned up at an Atlanta nightclub that also happened to become the scene of a murder. Five years ago, Opel, the GM car subsidiary, canceled a $1.2 million-a-year sponsorship pact with tennis player Steffi Graf because of her income tax difficulties. (It was really her father's fault, but Graf suffered collateral damage.) In 1997, retailer Kmart jilted Fuzzy Zoeller without a backward glance when the golfer let loose with some off-the-cuff remarks about Woods that were construed as racist.

Indeed, the athlete who abandons any earning power from endorsement deals because of less-than-role-model behavior off the playing field is an increasingly common story. Yet a couple of recent lawsuits suggest that companies that tie their fortunes to a sports star are raising the bar for their representatives' comportment. They are now canceling endorsement deals based on an athlete's sportsmanship while he is still on the field competing.

One of the lawsuits was filed two months ago in U.S. District Court in Denver. AT&T Broadband, which is based in Englewood, sued NASCAR driver Mike Borkowski for dragging its image through the mud by what the telecommunications company determined was overly aggressive behavior during a race last year.

Borkowski arguably did nothing that other drivers haven't done before -- he clipped two cars at last May's Busch 200, causing them to crash. Nevertheless, AT&T decided that the 26-year-old driver was not the sort of icon it wanted. This past November the company filed suit, demanding reimbursement of $600,000 in endorsement money from Borkowski for his bad driving.

When a button-down corporation decides to ally itself with a (usually) young, undereducated man who suddenly discovers that he is worth more money than he has ever seen and is adored by millions of fans, there's bound to be a few spots of trouble. That's why finding the perfect athlete to represent a product is considered such a marketing coup.

It's a jagged line between marketing magnet and model citizen. Seeking the precious younger demographics, many companies like to appear as though they have an edge -- without actually getting too close to anything sharp, of course. Canon built an advertising campaign around tennis player Andre Agassi for its Rebel camera. Agassi was just the right sort of outlaw for a multinational optics company: He gave the impression of being a nonconformist (black socks at Wimbledon?!) while acting as a perfect gentleman (Brooke would tolerate nothing less).

When it comes time to ink a contract, all a company can do is sign the deal and hope for the best. Sometimes the money is enough to ensure that it will work out. Other times, the player's true personality will come out no matter what the pay. A few years back, Wilson took a chance with golfer John Daly, a charismatic player with a towering drive and a bucket of potential. But when Daly's well-known drinking problem started becoming more of a story than his putting, the company pulled the plug. Similarly, Dennis Rodman lost a deal with Converse shoes because, well, he insisted on acting like Dennis Rodman.

That's not to say that corporations are unrealistic prudes. Dean Bonham of the Denver-based sports marketing company the Bonham Group points out that, generally speaking, executives are about as tolerant as the general public, since that's the group of consumers the company is trying to impress in the first place. Take the case of Brian Griese. Even though the Broncos quarterback was picked up last year for driving under the influence of alcohol, "he was humble, apologetic, contrite and polite," Bonham says. "I think corporate America will forgive and forget because that's what fans want it to do."

Yet because the investments can be huge, in recent years corporate sponsors have been trying harder to cover their bets. "Any corporation has to be concerned how the actions of a team or an individual's image will be linked to it," says Bonham. As a result, says Paul Anderson, assistant director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University, so-called moral-turpitude clauses in sponsorship deals are now standard. They permit a company to back out of a deal for any behavior on the part of the athlete that executives feel reflects poorly on their business. (Presumably, it was this clause that Hertz decided to exercise when longtime spokesman O.J. Simpson ran into domestic troubles.)

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