The technicolor sports hero

To silence the most glib sports executives, ask them who they think is the most marketable white athlete today.

It usually does the trick.

A chorus of "umm's," "huh's" and "give-me-a-minute's" are used to bide for time before they finally spit out names like Lance Armstrong, Tony Hawk and Andy Roddick. Yet ask for their assessment of the most marketable black athletes and the names just flow off the tips of their tongues.

"Twenty years ago, we would have been thinking hard about what black athlete could have a chance of signing a couple of endorsement deals," said Terdema Ussery, president and chief executive of the Dallas Mavericks, perhaps the most culturally diverse team in professional sports. "Now, we're asking the opposite."

Michael Jordan was the catalyst. Before Nike signed Jordan to a five-year, $2.5 million deal in 1984 -- and the popularity of the Air Jordan shoe line led to the growth of modern-day sports marketing -- African-American athletes had limited presence in the advertising arena. But Jordan's performance on the court, combined with his ability to appeal to a broad audience that stretched beyond racial boundaries led to millions of dollars in endorsement deals with powerful brands like McDonald's, Gatorade, Hanes and Upper Deck.

Ultimately, there wasn't enough of His Airness to go around, so companies began to turn to other players in hopes that they could find the next Jordan to pitch their products.

"He represented something greater than race," said Que Gaskins, vice president of global marketing for RBK, Reebok's sports and entertainment division that recently launched shoes endorsed by hip-hop stars Jay-Z and 50 Cent. "He crossed all boundaries by not using his star power for some political agenda and he learned to play the game of the court as well as he knew how to play on the court."'

Today, African-Americans make up the bulk of the highest-paid endorsers in sports. Tiger Woods, whose dominating presence on the golf course and multi-racial heritage make him so appealing to the masses, will top all athletes with about $70 million in endorsements this year. Nike made LeBron James its Heir Jordan, and the NBA newcomer stands to make more than $25 million off the court in 2004. And sisters Venus and Serena Williams, who as youngsters practiced on public tennis courts in Compton, Calif., will earn about $15 million each.

"Times are changing," said Dontrell Willis, the popular Florida Marlins pitcher whom the team used in marketing campaigns during his rookie season. "We've proven we can be marketable and it's not like the past when weren't given the chance. LeBron, Michael Jordan and Michael Vick, those are now household names just like Pete Sampras, Wayne Gretzky and Roger Clemens. So it's not about race, it's about who can sell the best."

It's been a long time coming.

Wheaties had 48 athletes on boxes from 1934 through 1985. The only African-American to appear on the box during that span was Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who was featured in 1952, five years after teammate Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball.

But things started changing as the 1980s drew near. When Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson wasn't running through airports in Hertz commercials, he was drinking Tree Sweet orange juice. In 1978, Standard Brands created the "Reggie" bar, named after Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson. And soon after "Mean" Joe Greene appeared in his famous Coke commercial which ran during Super Bowl XIV in 1980, Magic Johnson signed a shoe contract with Converse.

"Not only did times change, but domination changed," said Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and author of "In Black and White: Race and Sports in America." "All you had to do was look at the statistics in the most popular sports and see that African-Americans were at the top. What were companies going to do?"

Through Wednesday night's NBA games, Keith Van Horn at No. 39 and Brad Miller at No. 49 were the only white American-born players to rank among the league's top 50 scorers. And this season could be the 10th in the last 12 seasons that no American Caucasian player was among the league's top 20 in scoring, Tom Gugliotta (1996-97) and Van Horn (1998-99) the only players to interrupt the run.

"All the top basketball players are either black or European," said Gaskins, the Reebok executive. "There is no Larry Bird of this generation."

Although it's not exactly clear that the evolution of the black athlete endorser makes sports marketers color blind -- Shropshire notes that some advertising executives comment on how "well spoken" a black athlete is, a sign of latent racism -- the sports business world is, without a doubt, ahead of the curve.

"The beauty of sports, really more than any other area, is that it allows us to transcend our differences," Ussery said. "For fans, it comes down to what's on the helmet or the jersey, the team and the city."

And for Madison Avenue executives, the bottom line is whether an athlete can help a company sell its brand.

"The people in charge of selling Coke and Pepsi don't care about black or white, they care about green -- the color of money," said Keven Davis, an attorney who negotiates marketing deals for athletes, including the Williams sisters. "If some guy had polka dots all over him and could sell product, they wouldn't care what he looked like."

Not only have attitudes about race changed in recent decades, but the power of the urban culture, particularly over the last five years, has been realized. Shaun Carter (better known as Jay-Z) and Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) have their own shoes, and brands that are appear in hip-hop videos -- R. Kelly wore Izod, Nelly had a song about Nike's Air Force One shoe line and Busta Rhymes included Courvoisier cognac -- have experienced such a lift in sales that companies are now paying for placement in songs.

"It's been proven that African-American athletes are not only good at selling products to African-Americans, but they can sell all type of goods to every segment of the population," said Shawn Bryant, a former NBA executive who is now CEO of Gameface Ventures, a sports marketing firm. "The sports world is the embodiment of the ultimate crossover. Athletes today clearly transcend race, gender and socio-economic issues."

Jordan and Woods have proven that there are no categories that are hard to get as far as endorsements go. Woods pitches Nike shoes and golf products, Electronic Arts video games, Buick cars, Tag Heuer watches, Upper Deck sports cards and American Express charge cards.

And active white athletes are becoming less recognized among sports fans. On its top 10 list of marketable athletes in America, Marketing Evaluations, which produces the Sports Q Ratings, has Brett Favre at the highest active white athlete on the list at No. 9. That's the lowest that first white athlete to appear on the list, says the company's executive vice president, Henry Schaffer.

Will it come a day when no white athlete appears on the list? Or could the pendulum of marketing trends someday reverse itself, and white athletes begin to dominate in the advertising arena again?

"I don't think it's cyclical," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing company whose survey of more than 2,000 advertising and marketing executives last year revealed than seven of the top 10 most desired athletes for endorsements were black. "Given the sheer number of African-Americans in sports, there's a good probability that they'll generate the most among high-profile endorsers."

It might just get harder and harder for marketers to come up with an answer to the "most marketable white athlete" question.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com