How Gatorade, a College Coach’s Concoction, Created a $12.5 Billion Industry

The original thirst quencher

Michael Jordan made Gatorade famous the night he nearly killed himself. It was Game 5 of the NBA finals in 1997, the series tied at 2-2. The Chicago Bulls' legendary shooting guard was sick as a dog with the flu. Jordan should have been in a hospital bed. Instead, he staggered into the game. In his 44 minutes of play, Jordan scored 38 points. "Somehow," Jordan later said, "I found the energy to stay strong." It was monumental willpower, of course, but maybe also the drink he swilled by the gallon as the TV cameras rolled: Gatorade. 

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Turns out, Jordan had inked a $13 million endorsement deal with Gatorade six years earlier. But that night in Salt Lake City, he was drinking the stuff for one reason: Nearly all athletes do. Today, the entire $12.5 billion category of sports drinks centers around the science of electrolyte replacement. But it was Gatorade that discovered it first.

In 1965, Florida Gators football coach Dwayne Douglas paid a visit to the university's kidney specialist Dr. Robert Cade, concerned that his players were dropping like flies, sweating off up to 18 pounds without being thirsty. Cade mixed up a tangy elixir of water, carbohydrates and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) that simulated the body's ability to replace fluids lost to perspiration. People called the stuff the "Gator coach's aid." And with it, the Gators started winning. Soon, every team was drinking it. "We created the sports drink category 50 years ago," said Gatorade svp Brett O'Brien, "and we've been leading it ever since."

The drink's success has also given rise to leagues of competition: Glacéau, Powerade, Red Bull and others. But PepsiCo (which bought Gatorade from Quaker in 2000 for $13 billion) has allowed it to compete on another field: marketing. In addition to inheriting the legacy of the legendary "Be Like Mike" spots from the 1990s, PepsiCo has lined up the biggest names in sports behind Gatorade: Vince Carter, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter and many others.

Gatorade also has won numerous Clio Awards and Clio Sports Awards for its advertising and this year will collect the Clio Sports Brand Icon Award.

That much of that advertising also shows everyday athletes is still another reason the drink has been able to hold a roughly 70 percent share of its market. "They've done a great job of storytelling to the consumer," said Joe Favorito, who teaches sports marketing at Columbia University. "You see everyday athletes [in the commercials]. So it's not just that Derek Jeter drinks the stuff, it's the guy going by me on a bike who drinks the stuff."

Of course, it never hurt that athletes like Jeter did drink it. Ditto for Jordan who, it is estimated, downed 75,060 ounces of Gatorade in his career. 


This story first appeared in the July 6 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.