How Michael Jordan Became the GOAT of Celebrity Endorsements

Michael Jordan not only sold sneakers, but sports drinks, hot dogs, and underwear.

Michael Jordan Hanes

Michael Jordan selling a pair of Hanes underwear in 2003. Image via Getty

Michael Jordan Hanes

Back in early 2016, Michael Jordan made news by becoming the world’s highest-paid athlete, active or not, with roughly $110 million in earnings the year prior. Yes, $100 million of that came from his deal with Nike, a relationship that has been ongoing (and growing) since he entered the NBA in 1984. But he doesn’t reach that level—official billionaire status as of 2014—without some depth and breadth to that endorsement portfolio. It wasn’t just the shoes.

Let’s take it back to the ‘80s, when Air Jordans still featured the ball and wings logo and the Bulls weren’t winning playoff series yet, let alone championships. There were still doubts among basketball experts whether Jordan would be anything more than a flamboyant scorer (and all-world dunker). Winning was everything, and he wasn’t doing it. That didn’t stop some of the biggest corporations in the country from seeking further illumination from Jordan’s shine.

Nike was first, before he even stepped on an NBA court, but the portfolio grew quickly. In seemingly no time, Jordan—thanks in part to superagent David Falk—was representing, well, America. He had national deals with Coke, McDonalds, Chevrolet, everything but mom and apple pie. His name was on Wilson basketballs (personal note: I had one of the black synthetic leather ones and played outdoor ball with it until it was grey and furry and about a half-pound lighter), he was on Wheaties boxes, and he even advertised tuxedos. Hanes? Yup, they came on board in ‘89. Jordan still hadn’t answered the question of whether he could win a championship, but he’d certainly answered the one about whether an African-American athlete could be the face of national campaigns, plural.

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Things just kicked up higher in the ‘90s. Nike had re-upped, of course, Ball Park Franks signed Jordan  up in 1990, Gatorade replaced Coke in the portfolio following negotiations that began at the 1991 All-Star Game, and Upper Deck came on board in 1992. When he came back to basketball for the first time in 1993, His Airness  was driving a Corvette. Jordan did commercials for Nike with Spike Lee and Bugs Bunny, played H-O-R-S-E with Dream Teammate Larry Bird for McDonalds. He got his own cologne, one that was later spoofed tremendously by Gheorghe Muresan via ESPN. Not only was Jordan making more money off-court than on it (he didn’t REALLY get paid by the Bulls until his final two seasons), he was on TV in commercials more than he was in games. And to think, he hadn’t even done Space Jam yet. Or won a title.

By the time Jordan decisively answered the final basketball question—could he ever win a championship?—by earning six titles in six tries, cementing himself as the best ever, he’d already established himself as the GOAT in another realm. No other professional athlete had ever boasted such an impressive endorsement portfolio. No other professional athlete had become identified with so many national brands. No other professional athlete had headlined so many memorable campaigns.

And while LeBron James continues to come for Jordan’s on-court legacy nightly, it’s safe to say that in this social-media fragmented world that no one will ever come close to touching Jordan’s legacy off of it. Never again will one man, one athlete, be the national—hell, make that the global—face of so much.

So as Jordan Brand drops the “Like Mike” collection, commemorating Jordan’s first campaign with Gatorade, it’s worth remembering that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Think of these VIs (and the vibrantly colored 1s to come) as Space Jams for the small screen, representing yet another timeless Michael Jordan moment that will never be replicated and never be forgotten.