The History of Athlete Endorsements: Part Two

Last week we presented Part One of this post. This week, let’s continue our look at the history of athlete endorsements with the conclusion of our two-part series.

Ancient sports stars (the original athletes)

Rather than lucrative endorsement deals, in ancient times athletes were honored with statutes, songs, poems and drawings. Here are some ancient athletes whose success and fame likely would have made them some of the biggest athlete endorsers of their time:

Theagenes of Thasos was a Greek boxer who won more than 1,300 matches during his 22-year career. At the Olympics in 480 B.C., he was declared the victor in boxing, and at the 476 Olympics he won the pankration competition, an ancient form of mixed martial arts. In doing so, Theagenes became the first athlete to win the wreath in both boxing and pankration. He went on to win 21 more championships at the Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian games. According to legend, Theagenes was undefeated as a boxer for over two decades! He also won a crown as a long distance runner during a competition in Argos, further adding to his legacy.

Leonidas of Rhodes was a runner who won wreaths in three categories at the 164, 160, 156 and 152 Olympic Games. He competed in sprints as well as in hoplitodromos, a race in which contestants ran in a helmet, armor and carried a shield. His 12 individual Olympic victories are the most individual victories by any Olympic athlete ever, placing him one ahead of Michael Phelps’ 11 individual Olympic victories.

Move over Tiger, Gaius Appuleius Diocles is actually the highest paid athlete of all time. Diocles was a chariot racer who won 35,863,120 sesterces in prize earnings. In case you are wondering, by today’s figures, that amount of prize earnings translates to over $15 billion dollars! The figure was recorded in an inscription erected in Rome by his fellow race competitors and admirers in 146 A.D., which hails him as “champion of all charioteers.”

Influential sneaker sponsorships

Athletes have helped market and establish some of the biggest names in footwear. Here are some of the most influential sneaker endorsements:

  • Converse Rubber Shoe Company and Chuck Taylor agreed to the first sneaker contract on June 14, 1923. Taylor’s signature still remains on that iconic sneaker design 90 years later! Since then, countless athletes, musicians and movie stars have worn “All-Stars.” It is estimated that 60 percent of all Americans will own at least one pair of “Chucks” in their lifetime. The sneaker continues to be reinvented by each generation.
  • Michael Jordan was a self-proclaimed “Adidas fanatic since high school.” He wanted to sign with Adidas out of college but they did not offer him an endorsement deal. So, after some convincing from Nike CEO ,Phil Knight, MJ opted to sign with Nike instead. In 1985 the Jordan I was released in red and black to match the Chicago Bulls uniform. The color scheme was banned by NBA Commissioner, David Stern, for failing to meet league uniform rules (the shoes did not have enough white on them). However, Jordan continued to wear the shoes during games and was consequently fined each time for doing so. Nike paid the fines for MJ, nicknamed the shoes “Banned” and even crafted an endorsement strategy around the shoe banning. The Jordan I went on to sell over $130 million that season and MJ went on to become the greatest basketball player ever.

In 1996 MJ created Jordan Brand, a division of Nike. In 2012, Jordan Brand controlled 58 percent of the U.S. basketball shoe market and is widely considered the elite brand for basketball footwear and apparel. Jordan’s endorsements have carried Nike to the top of the sneaker market and have inspired countless athletes, brands and sneaker designs.

  • Adidas’ Stan Smith is widely considered the most iconic tennis shoe ever. However, in 1964, Adidas first named this shoe after French tennis star, Robert Haillet. In those days, sneaker designs were passed on to a new endorser rather than be discontinued, or a new one be created. When Haillet retired, Adidas chose number one ranked American tennis player, Stan Smith, as the next endorser of the shoe. This move opened the American marketplace to Adidas. In 1971, the shoe was officially renamed after Smith and has kept its name ever since.
  • In the late 1960’s, The Van Doren Rubber Company was created in Anaheim, California just as skateboarding began to explode in Southern California. Skaters began skating in “Vans” shoes because the “non-slip” bottom allowed for better board grip. In 1975 Vans teamed with Southern California skateboarding legends Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta to design the Vans Era. Thanks to that shoe design, by the end of the 1970’s, Vans had established more than 70 stores in California and was selling their shoes worldwide! The Vans Era created the skating shoe industry by inspiring countless other brands to design skating shoes. The Era is still one of the most popular shoes in today’s skating culture.

Some of the most popular brands in footwear can attribute part of their success to the athletes who endorsed their products.

Continue the history

Athlete endorsements have evolved and come a long way throughout history. Many different athletes, brands and events have played a role in shaping marketing strategies in the past and the ripple of their endorsements can still be seen in today’s marketing campaigns and endorsements.

As we have seen throughout these two posts, the fundamental idea of utilizing a popular or beloved athlete to endorse a brand has stood the test of time and continues to provide brands with outstanding marketing results.  With social media taking the lead as one of the largest channels for endorsements and the rise of sponsorship in esports and video games, endorsement deals will continue to evolve. 



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