|Wednesday, December 19
Hill's agent: Shoes didn't cause ankle problems
By Darren Rovell
Fleeting comments can have lingering implications, so when word came Tuesday that Grant Hill's latest ankle injury would sideline him for the remainder of the season, the buzz of Charles Barkley's comments two weeks ago was still in the air.
Hill signed a seven-year, $80 million endorsement deal with Fila in September 1997 and remains among the company's highest-profile pitchmen. But since signing a seven-year, $93 million player contract as a free agent prior to last season, Hill has played only 18 games with the Orlando Magic. Ankle problems, to be sure, have cost him the bulk of his playing time. Hill has had three surgeries in a 20-month span on his left ankle -- the first in April 2000, a second last January and a third Wednesday morning.
According to the Magic's team physician, Dr. Joe Billings, Hill could resume physical activity in the summer. Wearing Fila shoes, his agent, Lon Babby added.
Babby takes exception to Barkley's comment: "Grant's been wearing Filas since he's been a rookie in the league and he first broke his ankle in the sixth season. That's why it is pretty unfair and dangerous to make that connection."
Barkley, it should be noted, wore Nike shoes during his 16-year NBA career, and he remains a paid endorser to this day.
"I wouldn't take too much stock in Barkley's offhand comment," said Howe Burch, senior vice president of sports marketing for Fila USA, who pointed out that Hill's shoes are custom made.
Burch said Barkley apparently isn't aware of the accomplishments of those players who have worn the brand this year.
"We've had Jennifer Capriati win two Grand Slams in our shoes; Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in our shoes; Sammy Sosa hit 60 (home runs) for a third straight year, and Margaret Okayo win the women's division of the New York Marathon in our shoes."
Connection or not, news that Hill will be sidelined for the remainder of the season wasn't what Fila executives wanted to hear either. Since Hill entered the league in 1994, Fila has designed and named a shoe for him each season.
"Grant Hill is certainly one player who transcends play on the court, but him not playing doesn't help Fila too much," said Frank Vuono, a partner of 16W Marketing, a sports marketing firm. "If he were endorsing a cologne or credit card or something to do with lifestyle more than something to do with basketball, it wouldn't hurt so much."
"With any athlete, you are counting on visibility to get your brand out there and, with Grant not playing, his connection with our brand is obviously going to be seriously diminished," said Burch, who declined to give sales figures on Hill's shoes.
Most recently, Fila's biggest victory in the endorsement world has been Capriati. Fila signed her to an incentive-laden deal in December 1999, then signed her to a three-year extension in October.
As of close Tuesday, Fila stock (NYSE: FLH) was down 66.9 percent from a year ago, to $2.65.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher has skyrocketed into the top 10 in NFL player jersey sales this season. Now at No.7 -- behind Marshall Faulk, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Jerry Rice, Jerome Bettis and Kurt Warner -- Urlacher is the highest defensive player on the list.
"Brian is a player, with his blue-collar work ethic, that Chicago fans really seem to admire and connect with," said NFL spokesperson Steve Alic.
Matt Steichen, the 17-year-old high school senior who runs Illinois-based Torn Apparel (www.tornapparel.com) with his father, said he has sold more than 300 of Urlacher's half-and-half (half home and half away) jerseys the past two weeks.
Packing them in
Going the extra mile
Darren Rovell who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com