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FEATURE ARTICLE

 
RAPPERS V. ATHLETES: WHO PREVAILS?

 

Could rappers beat athletes at their own game?  A USA Today article examines which group is really connecting with the consumer.

 

Rappers 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and Xzibit will roll out their own signature shoes nationwide in July and August through Reebok, Pony and DaDa footwear, respectively. Female hip-hop artists are getting involved too. Missy Elliott has teamed with Adidas to push her own "Respect Me" line of sneakers, jackets and bags.

 

Since Michael Jordan and Nike revolutionized sports marketing, pro athletes have looked on endorsements as their turf, particularly in the $55 billion footwear and sports apparel market. But according to 50 Cent, rappers are "absolutely" taking away deals that used to go to jocks.

 

"Athletes are seasonal. Our presence is year round," he says. "The major corporations see how lucrative it is to do business with us."

 

Rappers are banging on corporation doors, looking for shoe deals the way basketball players did in the 1980s and '90s.

 

The "casual shoes" they endorse, used more for fashion than sports, have emerged as the fastest growing piece of the $17 billion athletic footwear pie. Casual shoe sales grew 24.5% in 2004 vs. a 0.3% increase for basketball shoes and 4.6% bump for running shoes, according to SGMA International. So-called "leisure/low performance" shoes accounted for 51% of dollar volume for the 12-month sales period ending in May, says NPD Group.

 

With the exception of female tennis stars such as Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, most female stars lag badly behind men in endorsement bucks. The rise of rappers only makes their life more difficult.

 

"This just gives (women athletes) more competition," warns Jim Andrews, editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report. "If this trend continues, and it probably will, it will make it harder for all athletes, including the women."

 

Edgy game plan

Still, hiring rappers can be a double-edged sword. Companies gamble their new celebrity faces won't get them in hot water for violent, sexually explicit lyrics. Reebok was forced to pull its 50 Cent commercial in Great Britain because of complaints that it glorified gun violence. McDonald's was panned this year for offering rappers a bounty of $1 to $5 each time a song mentioning "Big Mac" aired on the radio.

 

Meanwhile, publicity disasters such as NBA star Kobe Bryant's rape trial continue to turn the tide toward entertainers. "We see corporations looking more for entertainers than athletes because of the behavior and instability of athletes at the highest levels," says Bob Williams, CEO of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, who represents companies searching for celebrity endorsers.

 

Reebok, the No. 2 athletic company, embraced the hip-hop generation in 2001. Paul Fireman, chief executive officer, decided to pump up the street-inspired Rbk as a "lifestyle/entertainment brand" while expanding Reebok's sports presence through outfitting deals with the NFL, NBA and NHL.

 

Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson was highlighted as Reebok's main endorser vs. Nike's more polished Jordan. But the company really took the plunge when it signed rapper Jay-Z in 2002 to design and endorse his own signature shoe. Reebok viewed the launch of Jay-Z's "S. Carter" collection in June 2003 as test. The shoes sold out in three days. "We said, 'We're on to something big,' " recalls Dennis Baldwin, chief marketing officer.

 

During the first quarter of fiscal 2005, Reebok's revenue increased 11% to $925 million. The company attributes roughly half that increase to music, entertainment or lifestyle-inspired products, according to Baldwin. "Kids in their teens and 20s don't make delineation between sports and entertainment. There's a real fusion of sports, music and entertainment," he says.

 

Killick Datta, who bought Pony two years ago, is also going the hip-hop route. He passed on several athletes in favor of Snoop when looking for a star endorser. "I get approached by (agents) for one or two rappers per week who want to do a shoe. But we chose Snoop. We feel he's the most global. And he's a great businessman," he says.

 

All about the marketing

Blame it on Madison Avenue's obsession with reaching 18- to 34-year-old consumers. Consumers 12-24 years old generated 40% of sports apparel purchases in 2004, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). Rap artists provide a "street credibility" that many sports stars lack, says Bob Dorfman who rates the endorsement potential of current athletes.

 

"Jay-Z's shoe is more successful than that of most athletes," says Dorfman, creative director at Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. "Look at (NBA Finals MVP) Tim Duncan. He's a superstar, but he's boring. He's not American. He doesn't have credibility on the street."

 

Many of sport's biggest endorsers — Jordan, Magic Johnson, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky — are retired.

 

The new generation doesn't have the same charisma as the old guard, say experts. Even the NBA focused on retired "legends" such as Johnson rather than current San Antonio Spurs or Detroit Pistons in commercials touting ABC's recent coverage of the NBA Finals.

 

"Athletes continue to be icons. But there's not that many iconic athletes any more," Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence.

 

At the zenith of Jordan's fame, marketers handed out million-dollar endorsement contracts like candy looking for the next Air Jordan. But there are fewer companies to dish out contracts because of industry consolidation in recent years. And high-profile shoe flops by Shaquille O'Neal for Reebok and Bryant for Adidas have made marketers wary. "There were signature shoes for players who shouldn't have had one. Now we've come back to reality," Andrews says. "Jordan was an exception to the rule. Not everybody can sell products like he can."

 

Marketers are spending more money on a shrinking pool of elite athletes. A handful of stars such as Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez can write their own tickets, according to Brandon Steiner, founder of Steiner Sports Marketing, who plays matchmaker between athletes and endorsers. However, the next level of players behind them are starving for deals.

"The big names want six figures and up. And they're picky," Steiner says.

 

Most rappers have no qualms about working with sponsors for product placement in their songs, music videos and tours, says Lavetta Willis, president of DaDa. While rappers have long been the cheaper alternative to jocks, that's changing fast, she adds.

 

"Contracts for entertainers are getting to be the same as that for NBA athletes. I'm not happy about that," says Willis, a former basketball star at Notre Dame.

 

Meanwhile, the biggest player in the athletic footwear and apparel business has yet to jump on the bandwagon.

 

Nike has always prided itself as a company built by and for athletes. The No. 1 sneaker-maker has no plans to follow Reebok into the rap wars "at this time," spokesman Dean Stoyer says.

 

Instead, it's launching a new athletic line around Lance Armstrong named "10//2:" the date the cyclist was diagnosed with cancer.

 



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