|Wednesday, February 26
Iverson has given NBA new credibility
By Darren Rovell
He was finally too good not to be on the cover.
But when Allen Iverson appeared on the NBA's Inside Stuff magazine in 1998, the tattoo on his left arm was strategically cropped out of the photo. And when the Philadelphia 76ers guard appeared on Hoop Magazine a year later, gone were his earrings and neck tattoo thanks to the magic of modern-day computer technology. Even the artwork on his arms was curiously obscured by headline type.
As the league prepares to send Michael Jordan, the gold standard of marketability, into retirement, it now turns to the game's next generation of superstars and a new league order that places a premium on image of a different kind: street cred -- the inner-city seal of approval that has become so valued in the NBA.
Indeed, perhaps the time has come to update the NBA logo -- patterned after Jerry West's All-American image and old-school fundamentals -- to include tattoos, body piercings and cornrows. Collectively, players such as Iverson, Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury have carved out a niche that the NBA and shoe companies alike are using to sell the sport to impressionable youth from the inner-city and white-bred suburbia. They aren't bringing in the Rolex-wearing corporate executive with the financial means to plunk down $450 for a courtside seat, but the impulsive 14- to 28-year-olds who have a penchant for buying $300 jerseys and a fetish for $200 shoes that their favorite players wear.
"The league has always given us free reign, allowing us to simply be who we are," said Marbury, whose tattoos that stretch from wrist to shoulder depict the likeness of family members. "Accepting others allows you to attract others to the game."
Then he adds, "You can't forget that while some people think cornrows are strange, there are others who think (Dallas Mavericks guard) Steve Nash has crazy hair."
The league now stresses authenticity to the designers of its licensed products, from bobblehead makers to the silk screeners of championship T-shirts. Check out the latest versions of NBA-endorsed video games and action figures, and it is obvious the tattoo is no longer taboo. The league wants an accurate portrayal of its players, down to the style of their hair.
Virtual Shaquille O'Neal has a Superman logo on its left bicep, just like the real Los Angeles Lakers center. A video version of Ben Wallace, the Detroit Pistons center who has an endorsement deal with Sega's 2K3 video game, not only has a Big Ben clock tower on his right arm but has variable hair styles that go from 'fro to cornrow. And Iverson's body art is in its full glory on the cover of the Sega game's box.
"Your future fans and ticket buyers are those that do go out and buy hip-hop albums," Phoenix Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo said. "They are playing video games (and) they watch television programming that I'd never consider watching, but you have to pay attention to them."
The popularity of body art in recent years, as well as the fusion of hip-hop music and street-cred athleticism, have helped define the new edgy image, said Peter Montoya, author of "The Personal Branding Phenomenon."
"Tattoos across any ethnicity are hot right now, and hip-hop is one of the most popular music genres in the world with more than half of the albums being sold to white audiences," Montoya said.
Shoe companies like And1, Nike and Reebok have tried to meld the two pop culture phenomenons to tap into the urban apparel market. That's the same market the NBA caters to with its authentic line of jerseys and warm-ups, as well as NBA-logoed caps, sweatshirts and accessories. Being able to tap into the urban market not only has helped fuel more than $2 billion in licensed-products revenue, but it also helps to build a youthful fan base that will grow with the league. It's no coincidence that Iverson's jersey ranks second in sales on NBA.com and at the NBA Store in Manhattan.
"It was a learning process," said Cue Gaskins of The Ad*itive, a cultural marketing communications firm that advises Iverson. "The league is in the business to make money, and when they saw that the urban consumer had a lot of money ... and bought so many jerseys and shoes, they didn't want to miss out on the huge opportunity that would impact their bottom line."
Reebok certainly is a believer in Iverson's marketability. In November 2001, it signed him to a lifetime endorsement deal that reportedly pays him $7 million a year. "He's become an icon to urban youth, which is great for us," said Brian Povinelli, director of global advertising for Reebok.
A published report suggested that Iverson's brush with the law last summer -- he faced charges of barging into an apartment with a gun and threatening two men while looking for his wife, but the charges were eventually dropped -- actually gave Iverson's endorsement of Reebok more "street cred" and caused an immediate rise in sales. However, Povinelli said the company "has no specific data that the incident had any significant financial impact."
The NBA has proven it still has its boundaries.
Even though the Lakers' O'Neal has released five rap albums and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tried his hand at it with his own album in 2000, Iverson's foray into the music industry wasn't as warmly embraced, both critically or by league officials. When NBA commissioner David Stern heard that Iverson's lyrics included such P.C.-sensitive words as "faggots" and "bitches," he called a meeting and Iverson soon scrapped plans to release the song, saying it wasn't worth the trouble.
While Iverson and company have been good for the league -- and good for shoe and apparel companies -- Madison Avenue executives aren't so quick to embrace them.
"We're simply looking for an endorser that can reach the broadest demographic," said John Lewicki, senior director of sports marketing for McDonald's, which reportedly spends about $50 million a year on sports marketing and has used athletes who appeal to a mainstream audience, like Bryant and sisters Venus and Serena Williams, in national advertising campaigns.
"We must believe that they will fulfill their respnsibilities and we obviously don't want them to get embroiled in any sort of legal conflict."
The latter might be Iverson's problem. Ten years ago, he was arrested in a bowling alley brawl and served four months in prison. In 1997, he pleaded no contest to charges that he carried a concealed weapon in his car. Then last summer came all the bad publicity before all 14 felony and misdemeanor charges were eventually dismissed following the alleged gun-flashing incident.
Ironically, while league sponsor McDonald's likely will never sign Iverson to a national endorsement deal, they have acknowledged that his likeness can get people through the door. Local Philadelphia stores allowed customers to buy one of four Iverson bobbleheads for $4.99 with the purchase of a soda.
Gaskins said he believes Iverson's time will come, and those Madison Avenue executives who now steer clear of him will soon turn to the former MVP and other players with street cred to help their companies corner what they will discover is a hot market.
"They will come after Allen when these white decision makers ultimately responsible for making the call for their companies realize how many African-Americans are buying a competitor's product and they are forced to connect to their consumers better," Gaskins said.
"You can't tell me that all Allen Iverson can sell is shoes and sneakers," he added. "His followers buy a lot of other products."
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is co-author of a new book, "On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business From America's Sports Leaders."