Perspective: The Backhand Boys

Two generations ago, tennis stars were good for a sneaker endorsement. Today, they've got the balls for much more

Headshot of Robert Klara

In the early 1970s, long before there were high-tech carbon-fiber tennis racquets and nitrogen-pressured tennis balls to help, Roscoe Tanner pioneered the sudden-death serve. He could send the ball screaming over the net at 153 mph (a record that would stand for nearly three decades), terrifying opponents in matches the world over. But Converse noticed something else about Tanner. He was charming, Stanford-bred and very handsome. Converse, as it turned out, had recently introduced a new line of athletic shoes with shock support and extra padding designed especially for tennis players. So Tanner and Converse got together for the mutual financial benefit of both—and helped to usher in what is today one of the most vigorous and lucrative segments of advertising: the professional athlete endorsement.

But as the ads on these pages demonstrate, athletic support isn’t what it used to be. From relatively humble beginnings as the endorsers of sports equipment, famous athletes now rank with Hollywood stars in terms of promotional power—and they’re often flogging upscale brands that have nothing to do with sports.

The evolution took several decades. Pro athletes had always done endorsements (Lou Gehrig showed up on a Wheaties box as early as 1934), but fancy brands shied from them. “Athletes were always projected as the hardworking everyman,” said Joe Favorito, a veteran sports media consultant who teaches athletic management at Columbia University. “So the elite brands didn’t do anything with them.” This is why Joe Namath made the pass for Noxema shave cream, Pete Rose was an Ice Blue Aqua Velva man and, in the 1974 ad at right, Tanner got paid to wear Converses. “Endorsement deals weren’t coming from everywhere, and tennis stars didn’t make much money, so this was probably a big deal for him,” Favorito said.

But things were changing. It began when gentleman athletes (read: golfers) like Arnold Palmer began endorsing prestige brands such as Lacoste shirts and Rolex watches. The seismic shift, however, took place in 1992, when basketball stars such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson played on the Olympic “Dream Team.” Virtually overnight, “they took branding to a different level,” Favorito said. “They became international stars.” Luxe brands began to realize that some athletes looked as good wearing a Swiss watch or driving a luxury car as they did sweating it out on the field.

So, back to tennis. It’s 2011, and, like Tanner nearly four decades before, Rafael Nadal not only has a lethal left-handed serve, but he’s also charming and…OK, he’s got a body to die for. What’s more, “there’s no longer a line between sports and entertainment,” Favorito said. Thanks to social media, Nadal has millions of fans worldwide.

And all of this is why, in the ad opposite, the 25-year-old heartthrob from Majorca is not endorsing sneakers or rackets but the $200 Armani jeans that are slipping off his perfect round…oh, never mind. Irrespective of one’s opinion of Nadal’s Spanish good looks or his very expensive Italian pants, the ad proves that today’s pro athletes can pack mass-marketing appeal every bit as powerful as, say, a 153 mph serve.

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.