The Washington Wizards have lost nine of their last 11 games and are the NBA’s third-worst team. Home attendance is now sagging after a promising start. No games of theirs will appear on national TV all season. Buzz about the Wizards among NBA fans is minimal at best.
Enter team president Michael Jordan, the king of all sports endorsers, back into the public limelight to restore fan interest in the team, right?
Despite the Wizards again assuming their customary spot in the NBA gutter and the thinning MCI Center crowds, Jordan and other team officials said there are no plans to make him a more visible figure, either through advertising or arena appearances.
“Washington has tried to sell the team before in the past and it hasn’t worked. As far as selling the team, that’s not how I want to prove my worth,” Jordan said. “The team is going to have to sell itself, which it will do when it gets good. After a period of time people want to see quality on the court.”
Jordan currently earns more than $40 million annually through endorsements with Nike, Gatorade, Worldcom Inc., and more than a dozen other companies. The only other retired athlete with remotely as much pull with corporate America is Arnold Palmer.
Jordan’s power to drive sales for companies he pitches remains so strong that each one of his primary advertisers have agreed to his request for either equity in the company or a far greater voice in marketing strategy.
But when it comes to the Wizards, there are no TV cameras, cartoon characters or colognes and shoes bearing his name. Jordan appears with Mitch Richmond, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland on the cover of the team’s media guide. A handful of print ads prompt Wizards fans to “experience the Jordan effect.” That’s it. No TV commercials. No billboards. And no signing appearances.
Jordan, like last season, also is an infrequent visitor to Wizards home games, attending just two of eight so far this season. His primary residence remains in suburban Chicago, though team officials say he has been in the area more frequently on off days than last season.
Wizards officials acknowledge a more visible Jordan would do nothing but help boost interest in the team. But they are also honoring his wish to not be the team’s public focus, and are not pressing him to change course.
“He made a trade [Tuesday]. That’s his job evaulating talent and working to make this team better,” said Matt Williams, Wizards vice president of communications, referring to a deal with the L.A. Clippers that brought in small forward Tyrone Nesby.
“Every home game we have, the visiting media’s first questions are where is Michael and how much he has been around this year. But he wants his role to stay very operational and keep the marketing efforts on the guys on the floor,” Williams said.
In the meantime, fans frustrated with both the team’s play and salary cap troubles are growing increasingly impatient, steadily calling sports talk shows and Internet chat boards with pleas for a more prominent Jordan.
“Jordan needs to be seen and heard as much as possible. The aure of being perennial NBA doormats has to dissipate from this franchise,” one Wizards fan wrote on an ESPN.com message board.
Sports industry executives, however, say there is little Jordan can or will want to do.
“Yes, things are certainly off to a poor start again, but until he’s out from under the contracts of Howard, Strickland and Richmond, there’s still little he can really do. People still forget that a lot,” said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago sports endorsement firm.
“The other part of this is that despite Jordan’s apparent love of the limelight, he’s really a private guy. He’s tried hard to have a private life here [in Chicago]. He could boost fan interest by playing, no doubt, but he’s made it abundantly clear he doesn’t want that.”