Athletes’ Surprising Competition for Endorsement Deals? The Dead

The incredible shrinking athlete endorsement deal, Part 3

The number of recent scandals involving athletes has driven advertisers away from young sports stars and toward long-retired—or even departed—legends.

When Major League Baseball sponsor MasterCard was planning its campaign for the 2014 World Series, it could have cast just about any baseball star. But with the Kansas City Royals reaching the Fall Classic for the first time in almost 30 years, it hired the most iconic Royal of all: Hall-of-Famer George Brett, 61, who retired from the game in the 1990s.

Among retirees, Michael Jordan still tops most advertisers' wish lists—and earns $90 million a year from Nike. Other old-timers like David Beckham, Arnold Palmer and Magic Johnson are pulling in endorsements as well. And don't forget Terry Crews, who played for the Los Angeles Rams before the team moved to St. Louis and is now thriving as Old Spice's screaming spokesperson.

To many sponsors, however, the safest endorsers are those who could never end up splashed across the gossip sites.

"I'm in meetings where they are talking about this. The goal is to be safe," said Mike "The Reputation Doctor" Paul. "On the other hand, how sad is it that we're having such issues with our athletes today, that it's safer to use somebody who's retired? Or deceased?"

This August, Jockey and agency Droga5, New York launched the new "Supporting Greatness" campaign starring late New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth, as well as General George Patton and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

"With a more modern athlete, you're not really sure," said Ryan Raab, a senior copywriter for Droga5. "They're great—but their legacy is not as cemented. With someone like (Ruth), you know what their legacy is. And their legend."

Raab said the shop did not set out to use dead legends versus live celebrities. But it is happy with the choice. American heroes like Ruth come with defined brands, he said. Their personal reputations—and consumer appeal—are not going to change overnight.

Other legendary athletes with recent commercials include Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, who helped pitch Mazda and New Era ball caps this year.

Alcatel, the communications company that made the Gehrig ad, didn't stop with the sports great. It also decided to use one of the most evocative figures in history.

And who could sell telecommunications equipment better than Martin Luther King?

This article is the third part of Adweek's series on the decline of big-ticket athletic endorsements. Check out the other installments below.

Part 1: Domestic Abuse Allegations Cause Brands to Rethink Sponsorships

Part 2: Ad Competition From Big-Name Actors Pushes Athletes to the Sidelines

Part 3: Athletes' Surprising Competition for Endorsement Deals? The Dead