Not just a player, more like a brand

Michael Jordan turned the Chicago Bulls around, generating $10bn in revenues in the process. As a result, money has penetrated every dream of sporting success
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The Independent Culture

Playing For Keeps by David Halberstam (Yellow Jersey, £12.50)

At the end of the Eighties I was sharing a flat with a friend who worked for the advertising agency which had just won the Nike sportswear account. This was when Air Jordan trainers were the final word in hip streetwear - to be seen on the feet of every self-respecting rap artist out of the USA - and when he secured us a couple of pairs, we wore them with pride, strutting around the flat like a couple of wannabe B-boys and feeling ourselves mighty fly.

I never admitted it, but at the time I was slightly embarrassed by these borrowed clothes of cool because I didn't have a clue who Michael Jordan was. But I can remember wondering just what mysterious forces had conspired to propel his name so vividly into the foreground of my fantasy life: Michael Jordan, basketball star, the man whose trainers made you fashionable.

David Halberstam's magisterial biography explains all with an intelligence and breadth of reference that is rare in sportswriting. For the story of Michael Jordan is far more than the story of the rise of a supremely gifted athlete to the status of cultural icon. It is the story of how during the past 15 years sport has been transformed from the pastime of enthusiasts into a multi-billion-dollar global industry, a corporate enterprise that no longer speaks of winning and losing competitions, but of winning market position, hitting the right demographic and attracting the right sponsors. Jordan's story, more than any other, vividly illustrates how sport has become another branch of the entertainment industry, with all its attendant intensities and hysterics, its tabloid infamy and incessant television exposure. To read the story of Michael Jordan is to read no less a story than the commodification of sport itself.

It's a little difficult for us in the UK - with our stubborn resistance to the appeal of basketball - to appreciate the magnitude of Jordan's fame. In his final season with the Chicago Bulls his salary amounted to $34m. Nike, McDonald's and Coca-Cola made him their public face, and in 1997-98 Jordan's combined earnings from salary and endorsements amounted to $76m. His face was used to sell product after product to white America, and his long association with Nike alone has made him around $130m. Whenever Jordan played for the Bulls, TV ratings would increase by as much as a third, generating huge sums in advertising revenue for the networks, the clubs and the players. In the summer of 1998, Fortune magazine estimated that Jordan had helped generate in the region of $10 bn in revenues for the game, its broadcasters, and for his corporate partners.

It was Jordan's ability to produce brilliant performances on the court with such regularity that got audiences interested in the first place. His presence transformed the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls, a team who drew average crowds of just over 6,000 when he joined, whose players were better known for their drug taking than for their sporting achievement, and who were all but ignored in their home city, into what one commentator called "the Beatles of basketball". Imagine a player joining a football team like Crewe Alexandra and turning them into Manchester United, and you'll have some idea of the impact Jordan had on the Bulls.

However, in one sense the least interesting sections of Halberstam's study are concerned with the sporting side of Jordan's story. He was a uniquely gifted athlete who could have been genetically modified to play basketball, and who excelled on the court like no other, but it was his skills as a salesman, his media-friendly manner and persona, and his willingness to turn himself into a brand, that made him stand out from the other talented players around him (Magic Johnson, say, or Larry Bird). How the complex interaction of economics, of technology, and of marketing came together to turn him into a phenomenon is where Halberstam's account is particularly strong.

In 1979 basketball was a marginal sport that could not get its finals televised on prime-time television. Halberstam doggedly shows how the arrival of 24-hour sports channels on cable, the reform of the labour laws which gave players freedom of movement when their contracts elapsed, and the need for giant sports manufacturers like Nike to give their products an identity, combined to turn basketball into a sport with a huge global reach, and Jordan into a media icon. If this story sounds familiar, then it should, for the parallels with the changes that have occurred in football in England in the last 10 years are down to a similar amalgamation of factors: the arrival of pay TV, players winning more power than their employers through the Bosman ruling, and sports manufacturers using the personality of the stars to push their brands, and thus further fostering the cult of personality around the players. If there is one lesson to be drawn from Playing For Keeps, it is that the force of money tolerates no resistance, and those who attempt to prevent its march are doomed to be left behind.

This is a book about far more than one American athlete: it is the story of how money has penetrated every dream of sporting success. It is that legacy of fantastic wealth, of Jordan's earning power, more than his achievements on the basketball court that have made him legendary, and turned him into a totemic figure for all the excesses of the late 20th century.