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Advertising Athletes

Many athletes today are focused on marketing themselves

By Scott Becher

January 14, 2000 2:00 p.m. ET

Athlete endorsements remain the most visible example of companies leveraging sports to impact awareness and sales.

So when a couple of stars like Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker and Green Bay Packers receiver Antonio Freeman do things to publicly embarrass themselves, does it force companies to reconsider the wisdom of using athletes to pitch their products?

Hardly. Nor should it.

"Look, sports mirrors society," said Brandon Steiner, president of Steiner Sports Marketing. "If you don't think there are guys like John Rocker in your neighborhood, you're crazy."

Steiner's agency matches corporations to athletes. He represents companies such as Merck and Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as personalities, including Ernie Banks and Phil Rizzuto.

And he feels today's athlete is much smarter about the endorsement game.

"Now you have guys like Derek Jeter saying 'I want to market myself like Michael Jordan. I want to set-up a foundation like Dave Winfield.' They are a lot more image conscious. Of course, you'll always have your loud mouth exceptions."

Take Rocker. In case you missed it, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig ordered Rocker to undergo a psychological evaluation because of racist comments Rocker made for a story in Sports Illustrated.

Front-page headlines in the New York papers read "Screwball!" and "Off His Rocker." Not exactly the kind of guy you want putting a friendly face on your company.

Rocker explained he just wanted to emotionally retaliate against New York fans. The reliever said he was unfairly treated by Big Apple baseball fans during last year's playoffs. Now about Freeman.

About 15,000 posters featuring the All-Pro were sent out to Wisconsin law enforcement officials as part of a safe driving promotion.

Stop the presses. Freeman "faces possible charges stemming" from a December 22 car accident in which he wasn't wearing a seat belt.

"Why don't we talk more about the guys who are terrific role models, like Alex Rodriguez and Greg Maddux," said Reed Bergman, president of Impact Sports, which represents both of those players and many other all-stars. "There's an inherent risk anytime you use a spokesperson, but there are plenty of good guys out there."

And they get a disproportionate amount of the endorsement dollars. It's no coincidence that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods seem omnipresent. They are big names -- and as safe a bet as you get.

"You might say that the actual number of athlete buying transactions is down, that's a fact, but it's because the business has changed," Steiner said. "A few select athletes seem to be getting the big dollars. And the high prices force companies to make more sensible decisions."

So there you have it, corporate America. Do your homework -- and cross your fingers.

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher