|Thursday, December 19
Updated: December 20, 8:11 AM ET
Foreman still sizzles as endorser
By Darren Rovell
When George Foreman started putting his name on electric grills seven years ago, he didn't expect it to overshadow his boxing career.
While the 53-year-old Foreman is frequently left off lists of the top endorsers in the sports world, he might actually be the most effective one. For the third straight year, Foreman's signature grills are expected to remain the No. 1 selling housewares item in the United States, and more Foreman-endorsed grills will be sold this year than all brands of coffeemakers combined, said Gary Ragan, vice president of marketing for Salton, the grill's maker. In England, the company is expecting to sell two million grills this year, making it the best-selling electrical appliance in the country's history, Ragan said.
Foreman originally was to receive a percentage of grill sales from his endorsement, but astronomical sales from his "Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machines" prompted Salton to buy Foreman out. Three years ago, the company awarded Foreman with a five-year deal reportedly worth $137.5 million for the worldwide rights to his name and likeness. He made just $20,000 from endorsements during his boxing prime in the 1970s.
Foreman dominated the boxing world in the early '70s before Muhammad Ali beat him in the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974. Foreman retired in 1977, but despite his burly 315 pounds, he stepped back into the ring 10 years later as both a boxer and businessman. He appeared in commercials for companies such as McDonald, Doritos and Meineke. Given his weight, food commercials for the man who said he was addicted to cheeseburgers were often the most effective.
"Early on in his career, everyone hated him and he never spoke to the press," said Frank Vuono, co-founder of 16W Marketing, a sports marketing firm. "But when he came back, he became a likeable warrior and now he is very popular among the young and old, male and female. He pulls off the larger-than-life gig really well."
"He's a famous person who doesn't mind poking fun at himself," said Peter Land, general manager of Edelman Sports & Entertainment, a sports marketing firm. "And it doesn't hurt that his name is attached to something that happens to be a great product. George created the buzz around this product and was the catalyst, and now it has a life of its own."
Foreman admits that sales today have more to do with the quality of the product than with his name. But he knows that his ability to sell to the masses early on was integral to the success of his grilling franchise, which has now evolved into propane and rotisserie grills and colorful bun warmers.
"The grill was around for a few years just sitting there and no one could do anything with it," said Foreman, who now serves as a boxing analyst for HBO. "But people bought it because I believe they saw me as their friend. You have to be sincere and I think I can capture sincerity in my face."
Foreman grill sales have steadily increased despite Salton having to pay $8.2 million three months ago in the settlement of price-fixing lawsuit in which attorney generals across the country accused the company of fixing prices while urging retailers to bump competitors off the shelves.
That hasn't stopped the company from being aggressive. Its 30-minute infomercials are a staple on late-night television, and it just completed a five-week run of commercials in prime time for the George Foreman Lean Mean Contact Roaster that cost $7 million. Ragan says Salton soon will launch in Germany and France for worldwide domination.
Over the past few years, Foreman grills have become a fixture in college dorms and baseball clubhouses. Earlier this year, Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Geoff Jenkins said that a poll of Major League Baseball players probably would reveal that almost every player has a Foreman grill.
In Beloit College's annual Mindset List, created to inform faculty about how each freshman class views society, this year's class, most of whom were born in 1984, might think that Barbie has always had a job, that a Southerner has always been President of the United States and that George Foreman has always been a barbecue-grill salesman.
"I have many grills, but these days I'm flooded with e-mails from people asking if I can come help them fix their grill," said Foreman, who plans to unveil a line of frozen fresh protein foods in the near future. "I think some people think I make the grills out of my house."
Custom sports figures
"You see alumni from these universities gobbling these figures up," said Donny Saveski, a custom painter from Arizona who sold a Virginia Tech Michael Vick figure for $105.50.
But Derek Eiler, chief operating officer of Collegiate Licensing Company, which monitors the trademarks to more than 180 colleges and universities, said the industry doesn't have a long shelf life.
"The use of current NCAA student-athletes and university trademarks on any commercial products is a two-fold violation of both NCAA regulations regarding current student athletes as well as trademark law," Eiler said. "We are actively pursuing such infringements."
Suzy Whaley, who will become the first woman golfer to play in a PGA Tour event, should make a pretty penny off the appearance at the Greater Hartford Open next year. Her representatives at Peter Jacobsen Productions are getting deluged with calls from the media, as well as companies that want their logo on her visor, across the front of her shirt, sleeve and on her golf bag.
"Any company that aligns themselves with Suzy is going to get worldwide recognition," said Ed Kiernan, director of business development for Peter Jacobsen. "With everything that is going on with Augusta right now, there are many companies that want to use Suzy to tie-in with women household decision makers in the golf-watching demographic income bracket."
Kiernan said he is also shopping around the cable rights for a one- to two-hour special on Whaley.
Something to celebrate
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com