The most dominant player in the game, this three-time NBA Finals MVP is an imposing figure — physically and in his accomplishments as an athlete. At 7’1″ and 350 pounds, the L.A. Lakers’ center, Shaquille O’Neal, affectionately known as Shaq, plans to make the same impression in business. Among his investments, O’Neal owns commercial property in New York City, residential property in Denver, and six self-serve car washes in Orlando. “I’m not going to be making this basketball salary forever,” he states. O’Neal flashes a broad, confident smile and it instantly reveals his appeal in another lucrative venture — that of celebrity endorser.
“He’s a world-class athlete. He’s also cool, personable, and he’s fun,” offers Perry Rogers, president of Alliance Sports Marketing in Las Vegas, Nevada. Those are the qualities that excite marketers and resonate with consumers. “It’s what Mike and I have focused on from the beginning,” says Rogers. “Articulating first the characteristics or qualities that Shaquille has and then finding those companies you think match.” Rogers, in partnership with O’Neal’s uncle, Mike Parris, has negotiated lucrative endorsement deals with Burger King, Radio Shack, and a video game he cannot yet reveal over the last several months.
The partnership was formed last October after O’Neal, dissatisfied with his former agent, Leonard Armato, decided he needed new representation. His former deals included Reebok, Pepsi, Spalding, and Taco Bell, but when the contracts expired, he says no one wanted to hire him. “I was one of the top athletes, but I wasn’t doing much in endorsements,” explains 30-year-old O’Neal. “I wanted to get someone new and energetic.”
He also wanted better-constructed contracts. For example, he would only agree to endorse Burger King if becoming a franchise owner was part of the equation. They concurred, and the two parties are presently finalizing the details.
Another major requirement is that O’Neal has to feel an affinity to any product he endorses. “I’m not just going to take your money,” O’Neal asserts. “I have to like the product. I have to have used the product.” It’s one of the reasons he’s rebuffed several offers to appear on the Wheaties cereal box. Dubbed the “Breakfast of Champions,” O’Neal says he’s never eaten it. “If Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, or Dig ‘Em Snacks called me, then we could talk,” he jokes. His other endorsements include Starter, Nestle’s Crunch, and Swatch, totaling roughly $14 million.
Many of us can still easily recall the image of our biggest — and arguably sexiest — ’70s star, Billy Dee Williams, touting the social advantages of drinking Colt 45 Malt Liquor, or Muhammad Ali, our greatest sports hero, attesting to the strength of a particular pesticide. Another classic is that of battle-weary “Mean” Joe Green rewarding a little boy with his sweaty Pittsburgh Steelers football jersey in return for a thirst-quenching bottle of Coca-Cola.
And if endorsement opportunities for black male celebrities were limited 25 years ago, they were virtually nonexistent for black female celebs. Some years ago, when Tina Turner rolled her tongue over her pearly whites, marketers thought