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The New Sponsor Sluts: How Retired Athletes Became Product Pushers

By Michael Traikos, Special to Digital Journal

Digital Journal – Pelé has a strict policy when it comes to prostituting his image for capital gain: no cigarettes or whiskey. It sends the wrong message. Sexually enhancing drugs, on the other hand, are much harder for the former soccer star to turn down.

The one-time hawker for Viagra, Pelé stopped appearing in ads because Brazilian youth were popping the diamond-shaped pills like Pez. The Brazilian government banned advertising of Viagra and similar drugs in 2003, putting the brakes on Pelé’s sponsoring and eventually raising the question: What did bicycle kicks have to do with bedroom tricks? And more importantly, why did so many people listen to some 62-year-old grandfather who hasn’t kicked a ball in three decades?

Most of today’s golden advertising demographic (18 to 34 years old) were not yet born when Pelé won the first of his three World Cups or when Muhammad Ali knocked out Joe Frazier. But that hasn’t stopped multi-million dollar companies from splashing their tired faces across advertising campaigns. Why? Because these former jocks have already achieved success and are safe from both failure and controversy. These are sports legends whose pristine images are unsullied by controversy or scandal (just drooping flesh and impaired brains). Ali, who has battled Parkinson’s disease and the debilitating effects of a lifetime in the ring, proves that it is still better to burn out than fade away.

“What Muhammad is working on is his legacy,” Ali’s wife Lonnie told the New York Times. “How are people going to remember him?”

Based on the former champ’s decision to create a brand of healthy snacks, Greatest of All Time (GOAT), we might remember Ali as the celeb sponsor behind fruit-laden goodies called Rumble, Jabs and Shuffle. The snack food line, due out in early 2007, follows an announcement that entertainment company CKX Inc. had paid $50 million US for an 80 per cent stake of Ali’s name, image and likeness. It‘s a high-risk move, for both boxer and brand — can a legendary has-been inspire the younger generation to feed off the past’s celeb power?

Old athletes, like aging rock stars, are not sexy. Hockey retirees are missing teeth and geezer ballers hobble on scarred knees. And Ali, who once floated around the ring like a certain winged insect, is now a shell of the champion he once was.

Sports agents will tell you that retired athletes have more market power — and more time to shill for corporate moolah — in their old age then they ever did as working pros. That’s why Pelé, Ali, George Foreman and other retired players are earning more today when it comes to endorsement deals than when they still had game. Entrance into a sport’s Hall of Fame unlocks the key to a wealth of sponsorship opportunities that will keep them busy between rounds of golf and afternoon naps.

It‘s understandable why companies turn to the grandfathers of sports. Pelé, who has scored more goals in professional competition than any other soccer player, has cemented his place in history. Because he no longer competes, he is less likely to appear in the tabloids for head-butting his opponent on the sporting world’s largest stage.

Darren Prince, who represents a stable of Hall of Famers including basketball legend Magic Johnson and Super Bowl hero Joe Montana, puts it simply: “They’re no risk.”

Indeed, while today’s sports stars might be capable of breaking yesterday’s records, too often they are breaking the law in the process. Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 points in a single game against the Toronto Raptors last year, may be best remembered for what he was accused of doing off the court in a Colorado hotel in 2004. The same is true of Tour de France winner and alleged steroid user Floyd Landis, or any other athlete who runs the risk of ruining his image (and a sponsor’s) with injury, scandal or a blown play.

“Look at the unfortunate situation with Kobe Bryant and some of these players with DUIs or drug problems,” says Prince. “A lot of these retired guys are past that. It’s not a lifestyle that they put themselves around.”

These ex-athletes may be less risky, but their star power may not be as bright compared to someone like LeBron James or David Beckham. Sometimes, sponsoring some product could turn a legend into nothing more than a joke. When thinking of George Foreman, what comes to mind first? The boxer’s once-punishing right hand or his “lean mean grilling machine”? And Joe Montana is shilling for a drug company’s blood-pressure eduction plan, offering recipes for laughable dishes like “comeback kid coleslaw.”

So give me Kobe, Terrell Owens or any other current star who might be viewed as a public relations risk. It’s better than some has-been trying to sell me fruit bars based on his past glory. And do as the alternative band Sonic Youth once said: Kill your idols.

What Today’s Sports Stars Will Promote Once They Retire:

Zinedine Zidane
“Bonjour, I’m Zidane and I’m afflicted with the most painful migraines this side of the Seine. After I head-butt another guy’s chest, I take Tylenol 5 for all my anger management-related injuries. Eight out of nine doctors recommend Tylenol 5 when you decide to torpedo your forehead into someone.”

Shaquille O’Neal
“Before every game of basketball, I could never find a big enough meal to satisfy my hunger. That’s where Bucket Supper comes in. Filled with essential nutrients, meats and fats, this all-in-one meal is exactly what it sounds like — delicious food mixed together in a big-ass bucket. Today’s plus-size athletes will never again tip-off on an empty stomach.”

Barry Bonds
“You might remember me as the baseball player who took steroids. Yes, that’s true, but for the longest time my cheating went undetected with the help of Propescia Gold, a masking agent made from a classic organic recipe. Now you can flush all your troubles away.”

Anna Kournikova
“For the athlete with the body of, well, me, and the face of Amelie Mauresmo, choose Moskva Plastic Surgery to look sexy stunning on the tennis court. It doesn’t matter if you win any matches because you’ll ace the nightlife with a 500,000-ruble facelift. Let the paparazzi snap away!”

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