NBA stars will now decide where you won't see their faces
One of the hottest souvenirs of the NBA All-Star weekend is a T-shirt bearing caricatures of the game's 10 starters. But when fans reach for that shirt this week in Orlando, they'll be getting less than they bargained for. True, the shirt will have 10 images on it, but only nine of them will be the starters' (the 10th is of Tim Hardaway, who was named to the team after Magic Johnson was voted on as a starter). So if there arc 10 faces on the shirt and six are from the Western Conference, that means only four are from the Eastern. Who's missing? Michael Jordan.
Because of Jordan's exclusive apparel contract with Nike, the NBA may no longer sell or distribute any clothes bearing an image of Jordan's face. Jordan's contract with Nike has been in place since his rookie season of 1984, but the company, along with Jordan's lawyer, David Falk, has only lately applied significant pressure on the league to stop selling clothes with Jordan's picture on them. Last week the NBA announced that it would comply.
This is only the beginning. Nike has already notified the NBA that 88 other players, including Charles Barkley and David Robinson, also hold exclusive apparel contracts with the company. And Falk has done likewise with another of his clients, Patrick Ewing, whose apparel contract is with his own company, Ewing Athletic.
In terms of lost revenue to the league, the issue is relatively minor. NBA Properties is a $1 billion-a-year business, and only a small portion of that comes from apparel bearing the likenesses of individual players. "Our primary properties business has always been team-logo items, videos, posters, trading cards and other novelties," says Gary Bettman, the NBA's senior vice-president and general counsel. "They are not under the province of individual contracts with individual companies." One NBA source projects the loss of apparel revenue "in the low seven figures at most," and in today's NBA that is small potatoes. But make no mistake about it—the pressure from Nike and Falk angered league officials. The NBA's position is that everyone has benefited from the way in which the league has marketed its players, and that whenever Jordan and other superstars separate themselves from the pack, it highlights the differences between the haves and the have-nots.
"This circumstance is much more disappointing in terms of hampering the image of the NBA and its players than it is in terms of dollars," says Russ Granik, the NBA's deputy commissioner. He has a point.
The issue for Jordan, however, is control. "We turn down millions of dollars in commercial opportunities in order to control Michael's name and image," says Falk. "You must make a superstar like Michael scarce enough to be interesting, yet available enough to be popular. It is a constant balancing act, and you must have control to do that." He has a point, too.
But the apparel controversy is not only about money, contracts and control; it's also about cooperation. Or it should be. Cooperation between the league and the players was the primary reason the NBA went from a state of near extinction to one of prosperity in less than a decade. Fans don't care about contracts and exclusivity and apparel rights, they just want to buy an All-Star T-shirt with every starter on it. When they can't, the NBA and its players—all of them—are a little poorer for it.
Don't Touch the Zebra