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A History of Athletic Sports Endorsement

Athletes Who Blazed a Path for LeBron to Become a Billionaire

At 37 years old, LeBron James is a billionaire, earning from endorsements almost four times what he has earned as a professional basketball player. James has transcended his talents on the hardwood to incredible heights in the business world.

As we see at The Manual, today’s top athletes earn sizable fortunes not only by endorsing products and services, but also by actually owning them. This unprecedented athletic wealth is a legacy passed down to them through sports history. Before LeBron produced movies and Magic owned a piece of the Dodgers, there was Michael, Tony and Stacy, Don, Chuck, Babe, Honus, and archaic athletes who paved the way. Come along on a journey to learn the colorful history of sports endorsements.

Lebron James in his #23 Lakers uniform
Getty Images

The Ancients

An ancient depiction of Olympic Greek runners
The story of the ancient nations - a text-book for high schools (1912)

According to Tufts University’s Perseus Project, ancient Olympians didn’t receive monetary compensation for their efforts, but champions were given the modern sports celebrity treatment at home. His (or her, in rare cases) success led to fame, repute, and perks like meals paid for by the local government, front-row theater seats, and even private gym privileges.

Though these trappings might’ve been nice, the downside could be steep in Classical Greece. The Perseus Project relates the story of an Olympic victor switching city allegiance from Crotona to Syracuse as an ode to the latter’s ruler. When he took home the gold, Crotonan citizens were so angry about his reclassification that they tore down the athlete’s statue and turned his house into a prison.

The First

Honus Wagner swinging one of his Louisville Slugger bats for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1913
Library of Congress.

Fast-forwarding about two millennia into modern times, we find the first endorser, Honus Wagner. Multiple sources cite the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop as the first athlete to endorse a sports product, circa 1905. A decade before, when Wagner starred for the Louisville Colonels, he befriended Bud Hillerich. The man began producing bats in 1894, complete with names engraved on them to identify their owners. When Hillerich decided to begin selling his Louisville Slugger to the general public, the company paid Wagner $75 to use his signature on its bats. Today, the majority of MLB players use eponymous clubs.

Card collectors might also note American Tobacco’s T206 Wagner trading card that sold for approximately $6.6 million in 2021, the most expensive ever sold. The rarity of the card is now apocryphal as to why Wagner ceased their production. Theories range from his reluctance to associate with cigarettes to anger at not receiving money for his image from the tobacco company.

Over his career, Wagner would also hawk gum, sell soda, peddle gunpowder, retail razors, and even lend his likeness to cigar brands; a true trailblazer decades before NIL (name, image, likeness) rights even existed.

The Lifer

Gene Sarazen in 1922
Library of Congress

Legendary golfer Gene Sarazen pioneered the decades-long endorsement deal, paving the way for athletes like David Beckham to sign a lifetime agreement with Adidas. In 1922, Sarazen became the first member of the Wilson Advisory Staff, signing a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods that would last for 75 years, which is the longest-running endorsement deal ever. The contract would enrich both parties.

Developing a new club in secret, Sarazen debuted a stick that had a head that could “glide through sand” at the 1932 British Open. The so-called R-90 sand wedge would go on to sell 50,000 units for Wilson. This was the first and most popular sand wedge in golf for years.

The Icon

Chuck Taylor playing basketball in his eponymous shoes in 1921
Creative Commons

In 1917, Converse became one of the first companies to produce basketball shoes. In 1922, they redesigned the shoe and created an icon in the process.

At the time, Chuck Taylor was a semi-professional basketball player with the Akron Firestones, who took a sales job with Converse to make a living. Experiencing the limits of the first iterations of basketball footwear, Taylor had several ideas on how to improve Converse’s shoe. Within a year of his hiring, Converse listened and restyled the high-top to enhance ankle support and flexibility. Hence, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, and the country’s first athlete-endorsed kick was born.

Taylor traveled the country to promote the All Star, exhibiting its benefits in basketball clinics that also helped increase the sport’s popularity. By the 1930s, the Chuck Taylor cemented itself as the go-to basketball shoe and in 1932, Converse branded the man’s name into sports history, stamping his signature across the sneaker’s classic starred ankle patch.

The Barrier Breaker

Babe Didrikson golfing on August 13, 1947
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Babe Didrikson was one of the young nation’s first multi-sport athletes and sports superstars, excelling in bowling, boxing, diving, handball, softball, swimming, figure skating, billiards, and even football. Asked if there was anything she didn’t play, and Didrikson answered, “Yeah, dolls.”

She won gold medals in the 100-meter hurdles and the javelin and a silver in the high jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Didrikson leveraged these accomplishments into a lucrative career influenced by a polished public image. Legend goes, though, that this began almost by accident.

When she bought a Dodge after her Olympic success, Chrysler decided to profit from Didrikson’s notoriety, running an ad that featured the star athlete praising the car’s benefits in the February 1, 1933 edition of The Chicago Daily News. The Amateur Athletic Union took this as a punishable offense and promptly suspended Didrikson from amateur competition without a hearing.

Later that year, Didrikson turned pro and subsequently signed with Chrysler to promote Dodge coupes at the Detroit Auto Show. Showing off a sharp business acumen, Didrikson leveraged this into deals with P. Goldsmith Sons and Wheaties in 1935, another from Timex, and a lifetime deal with Wilson Sporting Goods in 1947.

The Millionaire

Don Carter circa 1955 Bowling Press Photo National Match Game Champ 1953 and 1954
Public Domain

Who was the first athlete to roll into a million-dollar endorsement? Why a bowler, of course.

Don Carter, another stellar athlete, was known for his irreplicable right-hand swing, which he developed while trying to build up arm strength as a player on the Philadelphia A’s baseball farm club. In the 1950s through the mid-1960s, a time when bowling was one of the country’s favorite family activities, Carter dominated the sport after practicing for 2 to 10 hours a day for years on end. He won the Bowler of the Year award six times and was a very popular figure at a time when bowling was a favorite family leisure activity.

In 1964, this domination led to the first endorsement deal worth $1 million. Carter signed with bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite, which launched the Don Carter Gyro-Balanced Ball. At the top of the game, Carter was already making over $100,000 from other endorsements and exhibitions. In 1970, bowling writers named Carter the best bowler of all time.

The Skate Punks

Z-Boys team at the Del Mar Nationals, 1975
Dogtown and Z-Boys (dir. Stacy Peralta, 2001)

In the late 1960s, The Van Doren Rubber Company was founded in Anaheim, California, just around the same time as skateboarding was taking hold in Southern California. Skaters started using “Vans” shoes because the rubber, “nonslip” bottom gave them better board grip. As the shoe began to symbolize the skating lifestyle, the shoe company took notice.

In 1975, Vans teamed with local skateboarding legends Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta to design the Vans Era. The new model would eventually sport a padded collar for ankle support and a tight toe box for better board handle. The Era took off and by the end of the 1970s, Vans had expanded across the state with more than 70 stores, while Alva and Peralta’s Z-Boys changed the sport. The shoe crossed national borders, single-handedly created the skating shoe industry, and inspired countless other skate shoe creations.

The Era is still one of the most popular shoes in modern skating culture while Alva and Peralta remain professional skaters and some of the sport’s major ambassadors after dominating during their era.

The Original

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls 1984
Tom Berg/WireImage/Getty Images

In 1984, Phil Knight’s struggling track shoe company signed the third pick in the NBA draft, Michael Jordan, to an unprecedented $500,000 per year contract. The athlete only agreed after being spurned by his first choice.

Michael Jordan was a self-proclaimed “Adidas fanatic since high school,” but the shoemaker wanted a big man, not a shooting guard, so Jordan reluctantly opted to sign with Nike instead. The deal granted Jordan his own signature line of shoes. Henceforth, the modern era of the sneaker endorsement was born.

In 1985, the Jordan I was released in red and black to match the Chicago Bulls uniform. The color scheme was banned by NBA Commissioner David Stern for not aligning with league uniform rules (they didn’t feature enough white). The controversy created a marketing monster as Jordan continued to wear the shoes during games. Even though he was fined each time, Nike happily paid the penalties, nicknamed the shoes Banned, and shaped an endorsement strategy around the fallout. The Jordan I would go on to sell over $130 million in revenue that season and launch the greatest-selling shoe of all time, sported by (arguably) the greatest basketball player of all time.

In 2021, the Jordan Brand generated over $4.7 billion in revenue, accounting for 13.17% of Nike’s wholesale revenues.

Today, athletes are able to endorse almost anything, be it sneakers, athletic gear, clothing, watches, shaving cream, tires, Rust-Oleum, or fish sticks. The future for athletes and endorsements remains lucrative thanks to the pioneers that came before them.

Matthew Denis
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Matt Denis is an on-the-go remote multimedia reporter, exploring arts, culture, and the existential in the Pacific Northwest…
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