Joe Namath, Muhammed Ali and Deion Sanders: Why Today's Megastars Owe Them
Many of today's athletes want to be more than just a player. None are more visible in this regard than Shaquille O'Neal, who is an author, has done movies, rap videos, commercials and more.
The desire to be a brand can drive their decisions as to where they want to play. There has been talk that part of Dwight Howard's desire to leave Orlando is to get to a bigger stage like New York or Los Angeles to be even more visible.
According to the Denver Post, John Elway asked Tim Tebow about being traded to either the Jacksonville Jaguars or New York Jets and Tebow's preference was New York. In New York, he would have a better chance increase his visibility and brand. In Tebow's case, that might be tied to being able to do even more for his foundation and not necessarily for endorsements.
I know we react strongly today to the most recent, to what's right in front of us. Sometimes a history lesson can be good. The idea of publicity and branding goes way back. The following paved the way for today's stars.
Broadway Joe Started It All
There was no better match than Joe Namath and New York City in the '60s. The culture of free-flowing alcohol and love was brought to another level by Namath. The original playboy athlete. The epitome of cool.
Namath went to the next level in partying by owning the hottest club in the Big Apple, Bachelors III. The NFL finally forced him to sell his interest due to the influx of unsavory characters.
Namath certainly loved the spotlight in his playing days. He wore women's pantyhose for a TV commercial. He was paid $10,000 to shave his Fu Manchu mustache in another commercial.
Perhaps Namath's biggest feat was forcing the merger of the NFL and the AFL, which created the uber-NFL that we know today.
It's hard to believe today, but there were two professional football leagues in the '60s. Namath was drafted 12th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL and first overall by the New York Jets of the AFL. He chose to sign with the Jets for an AFL record $427,000 contract for the 1965 season.
Talks were being held to merge the two leagues. The NFL felt itself far superior and the Green Bay Packers easily won the first two Super Bowls over the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. It was Super Bowl III that changed everything.
The NFL's Baltimore Colts were 27-point favorites over Namath and the Jets. I will tell you as a 10-year-old with a gambling problem at the time, nobody in Brookview Elementary School would bet on the Jets. The bets ended up being by how many points the Colts would win by.
Namath is most famous for guaranteeing a Jets win in response to a heckler three days before the game. The Jets' 16-7 win was impetus for the merger being completed, as the NFL realized the upstart league might be better than they thought.
Muhammad Ali: Self-Proclaimed 'Greatest of All Time,' and He Was
There had never been a fighter in the ring like Muhammad Ali. No heavyweight had ever moved like he did or had hands as fast as his were. And no athlete in any sport had ever talked like Ali.
Ali was the original trash talker. He talked himself up and his opponent down. It was all done in the name of promotion, and Ali was a genius.
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
"It will be a killer and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila." This was prior to the biggest of the fights, the 1975 match with Joe Frazier.
Ali was the inspiration for the character Mr. T. In 1967, Ali fought Ernie Terrell, who refused to call him Muhammad Ali. In 1964, Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. All during the fight as he pounded Terrell, Ali could be heard yelling, "What's my name, fool? What's my name?"
It's a shame that Parkinson's Disease has robbed Ali of his ability to continue to entertain and amaze us.
Deion Sanders: Branding to Another Level
Deion Sanders created a brand with two nicknames. "Prime Time" and "Neon Deion." While athletes had done commercials and made money off the field before him, Sanders was the first to exploit what his athletic talents could do for him financially.
I had the opportunity to hear stories of Sanders at Florida State from a former baseball teammate of his that I worked with, Eddie Sarama. (Quick side note...Sarama was preceded at shortstop in high school by Jay Bell and succeeded by Travis Fryman, both eventual major league players. I don't know what happened to Eddie.)
Eddie told me that, as a freshman, Sanders was a terrible defensive baseball player. He worked really hard to improve enough to make it to the big leagues. Offensively, Eddie said if he just put his bat on the ball to hit a grounder to the left side, he had a single. Eddie watched him run a 4.2 40-yard dash. In cutoff jeans. Barefoot.
The biggest memory Eddie had of Sanders was that he was a good guy but unbelievably cocky and loud. That depiction has held true all these years.
Baseball was a way to add to the "Prime Time" brand, to be out there and visible more than anyone else. As a two-sport player, Sanders couldn't hold a candle to Bo Jackson, who was a legitimate All-Star in both baseball and football. But Sanders did stand out.
He is the only player to hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week. In 1992, Sanders played for the Atlanta Falcons in the afternoon and then flew to join his Atlanta Braves teammates for the NLCS game that night against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sanders is the only player to ever play in both the World Series and a Super Bowl.