It is rare telvision station -- free or cable -- that does not show some athlete advertising one product or another in the course of a day's programming. Pete Rose wants to tell you about his aftershave lotion or why he has no gray hairs. Tracy Austin and John Newcombe entice you to purchase a camera. Athletes are hot items on Madison Avenue, but there are limits.
I remember staring up at a hugh billboard of Roger Maris in Times Square in the late 1950s. There was a large hole where his mouth was supposed to be, and clouds of smoke billowed out at 10-second intervals. His huge likeness hawked a particular brand of cigarettes. The ensuing controversy over athletes and smoking eventually led to a reassessment of the role of athletes in corporate pulbicity campaigns on the part of advertisers and the Federal Communications Commission.
There are two sets of problems: one for the players who endorse products that have nothing to do with their sport; and the commercial tie-ins between the stars and the equipment they use.
Although most of my endorsements are tennis-related, a particular brand of beer does sponsor my editorial columns in leading tennis magazines. at first, I had qualms about an alcoholic beverage endorsement. But two factors changed my mind. I really love beer. During my playing days I easily averaged two bottles or about 20 fluid ounces of the stuff every day. My doctor even told me it was good for me, and it didn't seem to affect my image. To this day I haven't received one negative letter about this endorsement.
But you won't see me on one of those hilarious television commercials for low-calorie beer. The reason is that I'm not thought of as your basic six-pack-a-day athlete.
Bob Lenz, principal creator of these now-famous ads, says, "My agency has no qualms about connecting athletes (retired) and beer. Beer is a fun product. It's everyone's beverage. It would be silly to restrict us. Athletes are naturally thought of as 'beery' guys."
But what about the women? Would a well-known female athlete endorse underwear, as Jim Palmer does? Yes she would, but she probably would not pose seminude, as Palmer has done. Times have changed, but not that much. It may be a while before a "name" female athlete appears wearing panties and bra in the pages of Vogue or Seventeen magazines.
Bob Kain, who represents Chris Evert Lloyd, says: "Chris is unbelieveably careful. She is very particular about her image. Even during postmatch interviews, she'll not discuss religion or politics. She feels more comfortable endorsing familiar products like rackets and shoes."
Female athletes are less aggressive about the fees they receive. Says Kain: "Most of the women tennis players don't want a 'greed' image. It makes them feel unladylike. The men, however, want every nickel and feel quite comfortable about it."
The second set of problems involves the FCC's truth-in-advertising codes and athletes' testimonials about sports equipment. I have never endorsed a product that I didn't like or didn't use exclusively. Still, the public at large has doubts.
I'm also asked about other tennis stars. "Does so-and-so really like that racket he uses?" is a typical question. Unfortunately, some do and some don't (or didn't). I know a few pros who can't wait until their contracts are up so they can switch companies for more money, a better product or both. Since I turned pro in 1969, I have switched endorsements only once.
On this point, Lenz is adamant: "We (Madison Avenue) don't need any more problems than we already have. If a celebrity endorses a product, it should generally be indigenous to that person's normal routine. This is very important. Just getting a name and slapping it on a campaign makes us all look bad, especially with athletes."
From my own experience, I would advise players to sign only with a reputable company that has a philosophy of working with athletes to ensure that all parties agree on contract terms.
A long-term contract is more important than the amount of money involved. For example, I have been closely identified with the same racket manufaturer for 12 years.
An athlete shouldlive up to the contract, especially the exclusivity clause. There were times when I wanted a beer, but if the brand I represent wasn't available. I did without.
As a television watcher, my favorite commercials involving athletes have been O. J. Simpson's ad for a car-rental company, Joe Greene's commercial for a soft drink firm, Peggy Fleming's endorsement of a sugarless gum and the commercials for one of the low-calorie beers. Arnold Palmer's ad for an office products firm gets an honorable mention.All these commercials used original concepts and were tastefully done. Whether an athlete is a Roger Staubach or a Joe Namath may not matter. Creditibility with the public is what counts.