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Timeless Athlete Endorsements: The Masterful Humanizing of Sports Stars

Steve Feuerstein

Some of the most iconic commercials in the sports industry history have been those that embraced athletes on their home turf bearing personal, intimate messages penetrating the hearts and minds of the masses.

Mean Joe Green

Looking back at the timeless Mean Joe Green endorsement of Coke in 1979, one cannot help but be reminded that beyond the gritty hype, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star athlete is as delicate as the next guy.

An admiring fan offered up his Coke to the agonizing Green as the towering defensive tackle passed him in the tunnel. Green’s “unMean-like” toss of his jersey to the compassionate young boy sentimentally impacted every teenager of my youth.

Michael Jordan

Another iconic ad for the ages was Michael Jordan’s introspective, soul-bearing reminiscence during his 30-second narrative entitled “Failure” promoting Nike, a living ode to his failed performances. And yet he never hesitated to step up when the next game was on the line. It was a masterful Madison Avenue achievement, an expression of pure humility while actually touting GOAT-level transcendence.

Threading a needle that both acknowledged failure as a necessity for success was an enormous accomplishment in creative advertising genius. It was a practical education that the only thing to fear is fear itself; that the only thing worse than failing is not trying.

That 1993 masterpiece punctuated an eternal message that it is in fact one’s ability to fail that ultimately contributes to executing one’s greatest potential. It was relatable to many of us who bemoan not winning the proverbial lottery because we never even bought a ticket. Michael Jordan’s militant drive for excellence and self-empowerment from his own “failure,” is why he hit the jackpot.

Derek Jeter

And then there’s Derek Jeter’s retirement alliance with Gatorade at his final All-Star Game was a bona fide draw on the heartstrings of any sports fan.

Jeter’s unscripted mingling with adoring locals on his home turf adjacent to Yankee Stadium accentuated his greatness via his approachability. Blending into the community and behaving with humility with those who inhabit the hallowed square blocks representing the undisputed soul of the Bronx Bombers, Derek Jeter the Captain became Derek Jeter the New Yorker.

What is truly majestic about an athlete’s iconic status is their ability to provide sponsors with access to the passions of consumers unlike other forms of brand advertising. If the campaign is executed with the right balance of moxy and humility, it can foster an enduring, coveted legacy among sponsor, fan, and athlete.

Such success often warrants that the brand yield center stage to the athlete. Maintaining a low profile during its own product promotion, while counterintuitive and quite the paradox, scores big points with the audience.

In Jeter’s sendoff below, there was one only visible moment during which the iconic Gatorade cooler appeared in this iconic spot. Gatorade, the sponsor and advertiser, takes a mere sliver of screentime to promote its alliance with Jeter.

The closing brilliantly showcases an orange Gatorade lightning bolt emblazoned with the Captain’s Number 2.

This commercial spot culminates in an artful graphic transition where Jeter’s #2 seamlessly fades to a Gatorade logo, as if they are one in the same entity: Jeter equals Gatorade and vice versa. Smart move by the creative strategists over Gatorade’s PepsiCo parent company.

Diana Flores

While she has yet to establish herself as a legend, the young Diana Flores has unquestionably earned emerging iconic status, starring in the NFL’s 90-second tour de force salute to women at this year’s Super Bowl. It was not only entertaining and uplifting, but sported a message of empowerment appealing uniquely to audiences of all ages and genders.

Flores emphatically declared that women can not only play football but they can do so intelligently — playing flag football — without encumbering the brutal risks of the full-contact sport.

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