In the next few weeks “The Last Dance” will get a second life, as the series moves to Netflix and the NBA and WNBA seasons get moving in Florida. That push gave us some pause to think about the series, the characters, the partners and the opportunity the mega stars of the NBA past and present would have in an engagement world that has shifted tremendously since the Jordan era Bulls had their swan song.
First the series itself did enjoy many of the benefits of the socially driven world we are in today. Shoulder programming hosted by the series creators like Mike Tollin did really well, and the series original producers, which included both Tollin, Mandalay Entertainment and super-agent David Falk, did the rounds and used many forms of social media to engage with fans and drive interest. ESPN, without the benefit of most live sports, also pushed their machine forward for the series, giving former players not named Michael Jordan ample time to team with their show hosts and also ramp up interest during the eight week run.
For brands, ESPN also went the creative route, with one of the three presenting sponsors of The Last Dance, State Farm nailing its ads in between the few commercial breaks given per episode, making viewers question whether it was a clip from the ‘90s that eerily predicted the future, or if it was just an ad. As most found out at the conclusion of the commercial, it was an extremely on-brand State Farm ad, given the program the insurance company was sponsoring. While the commercial was broadcast during each episode, conversation flooded onto social media, with Josh Okobie of the Minnesota Timberwolves asking the question we were all thinking, tweeting, “Was that State Farm commercial real?” His tweet created $7,320 in social value for State Farm, who received a total of $40,600 in brand value across social media throughout the duration of the series. That was just a portion of the ancillary benefit pulled in from shoulder production, with others like Gatorade taking the traditional route of support through advertising spots in and around the broadcasts.
The historical perspective presented through the sports sponsorship lens has been really important in bridging the gap to today. Keep in mind when Michael Jordan signed a four-year, $500,000 a-year shoe deal with Nike in 1984, the brand had yet to sign an athlete. At the time, Converse was the brand in basketball, inking footwear deals with several notable players, such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Off the jump, the fact that Jordan was Nike’s only athlete partner and paid him around $100,000 more than most rookies were paid for deals at the time. Additionally, the brand promised to put $1 million into marketing during the first six months of the deal for the player’s first show: the Air Jordan.
Nike had set a goal for sales of the shoe, hoping to bring in $3 million at the end of his four-year contract. During the first year of this deal, the brand pulled in $126 million in sales revenue, 42x more than Nike’s original four-year goal. Part of this gain was due to the NBA banning the first pair of Air Jordans, handing out a $5,000 fine to Jordan after each game he wore the shoes. This publicity increased Nike’s visibility thanks to the athlete being highly televised during his rookie year and thereafter. Nike utilized the banning of Jordan’s shoes as the basis of one of the greatest marketing campaigns to date, reminding fans and sneakerheads that although Jordan was banned from wearing them, it didn’t mean they were.
What started with Nike would soon trickle over to other brands outside of apparel that were looking to amplify their products and message, such as Wheaties, Gatorade and McDonald’s, with commercials airing for all three. By using Jordan’s name and likeness for exposure, Gatorade created the famous “Be Like Mike” commercial, that’s since been revamped during the airing of The Last Dance (Jayson Tatum’s tweet supporting the ad can be seen here). However, the era was literally a time when Jordan led…and very few started to follow.
Scottie Pippen, whose contract and sponsorship shortchanging played out during the documentary, wore Jordan shoes throughout the run, while Dennis Rodman, as flamboyant and edgy as anyone involved in the Bulls final title, rarely drew the dollars that Jordan did. Toni Kukoc, a rising international star, could have played his role into brand endorsements outside of the U.S., but the marketing dollars for second tier players were not yet flowing back across the Atlantic. Even Steve Kerr and John Paxson, whose game winning shots would have been transformed into marketable memes and Insta moments today, were part of larger deals but did not have the following or the numbers to generate other large scale income for brands looking to be part of the Bulls run. The other star not in the ancillary mix at the time? Phil Jackson. The Zen master was the constant as Jordan grew, departed and then returned for the final run, yet his consistency and his storytelling voice, only grew when he departed Chicago for points west with the Lakers. With “The Last Dance” crew, it was MJ or the highway if you wanted high stakes engagement with consumers.
So, let’s reimagine the brand value of the Jordan-era Bulls today, through the lens of the assets now available with the access that was granted. There has been much talk about what team, or individual could garner such wide storytelling and brand recognition today as the Jordan-era Bulls did. Would it be the Warriors under Kerr as their run played out? The dominance of the Patriots through Belichick and Brady? How about Saban and Alabama, or even the U.S. Women’s National Team? All have the story arcs that are craved…drama and tension, heroes and villains, uncertainty and glory, leaders and followers, role players and superstars…and ultimately success on the field of play, with a few storybook endings mixed through. However, none, other than maybe Brady and the Pats, had the brand dominator like the Bulls did with Jordan. The world of today has given stars big and small the opportunity to self-create their own market through niche branding, social media and even the global scope of sports today, all of which were either tough to do or were things that didn’t exist as the Bulls made their final run.
Do you think Dennis Rodman on Instagram or Tik Tok, or Luc Longley speaking to an Australian audience on Zoom, or Pippen using his hard working charm to engage with Reddit, could have made the pie for sponsorship and brand engagement even bigger than just the MJ focus? For sure. Would secondary sponsors on the sneaker side NOT named Nike…from adidas and Converse to Li Ning and Anta…have found a way to better monetize and content share off the value Jordan brought to Nike with the others on the team? Think of Rodman’s popularity in Asia AFTER his career, and what that could have meant to Lenovo or Softbank today. Pippen’s smile while on the court and his connection to community should have brought him millions in ancillary dollars for education brands now craving every piece of the NBA…and Jackson, with the rise in healthy lifestyle, maybe could have found a lucrative deal with Lululemon in that growing space.
The comparisons are easy to make when you look at the way the brand engagement pie has been split amongst the success of the Warriors. Durant in his time there made in excess of $20 million through his multiple deals with companies like Nike, Alaska Airlines and Google as well as his media deals with Apple, ESPN and YouTube, and investments in companies like Postmates, Lime and Rubrik, and that did not preclude Steph Curry from building his branding empire with companies like Under Armor, Chase, Nissan Motor, Under Armour, Palm, and Rakuten, or Draymond Green from finding his way to engage with Nike, Smile Direct or Beats By Dre. How about Andre Iguodala? Never the brightest of stars, in a Pippen-like role, the former University of Arizona star parlayed his tech interest and position in Silicon Valley into deals and investments with over 25 companies including…Zoom. Klay Thompson, in a move that could have been Pippen-esque, left Nike for Anta, and has scored other deals that have included Body Armor and Built Chocolate Milk. Each found their niche, established their own deal flow and engagement portfolio, and built off the next during the team’s spot at the top. You even had guys further down the rotation, like Nick Young and all his exposure with his alternative ego “Swaggy P,” ...ranked 27th in the NBA by engagements (5.95 million) among NBA athletes during the 2017-18 season+postseason on 323 posts. Those posts had 326 million impressions and he had a total social footprint of $6.8 million. His 23 posts for brands generated $435,000 in value for those properties, including $285,000 for adidas alone….or Matt Barnes, whose tattooed physique and unique point of view has given him a social media cache and even a prominent podcast, leverage Warriors success to their own audiences beyond the game. Even with the Warriors injury riddled slide this season, the interest and engagement of their original core, has not lessened.
What would that pie have looked like for the Bulls using the tools of today?
With instant access to 3.4 billion people on the various social media platforms in their pockets, brands are now able to reach people worldwide with one tap of the finger. For example, whenever Durant or Kyrie Irving shares a post about new Nike products, it’s likely that their target will see it and engage. During the 2018-2019 NBA season, NBA league and team social accounts generated over $1.1 billion in brand value, up 20% from the year prior.
From a team perspective, the use of better tools of visibility for brands would make a new, or reimagined version of “The Last Dance” infinitely more valuable. Virtual signage, clear targeted message boards, inclusive branding in areas like stanchions and the top of the backboard, all give brands more inclusion into broadcast than ever before. A comparison could be State Farm's stanchion exposure behind the basket that not only generates brand visibility in broadcast, but also on social since teams share highly engaging highlight clips around the rim (dunks, blocks, etc). The league average for State Farm's representation is equivalent to almost $800,000 in brand exposure on team's social channels throughout the season (they are a league partner). Then you have perhaps the biggest innovation, the jersey patch, which did not exist in the Jordan era, but brought the Warriors for example, $1.9 million in media value for Rakuten just at launch, all of which would be on display during an envisioned show. Factor in ancillary sponsorable programming…Zoom chats with players, live drop in’s with coaches to discuss the behind the scenes, social media posts for promotion…and the new “Dance” has opportunities for dollars way beyond what the first run did just for the marketing-savvy Jordan team. The pie gets bigger, not smaller for all.
Was the Jordan-era long form show an outlier that companies, fans, and the league, got lucky on, or is it a tentpole of engagement that could continue going forward? We have seen the success of “inside looks” from any wide swath of leagues in recent years, ranging from “Hard Knocks” to “24/7” and “All or Nothing” to mention the anthology series like “30 For 30” that continue to form the backbone of storytelling, and with that, exposure for brands way beyond the simple gameday sponsorship. The timing and most importantly, the access to Jordan and other key players way after the fact, was key and spawned a new audience who ironically, either forgot, or never knew, about the details and the personalities of the Bulls glory days. Those stories sat literally in a vault for years waiting to see the light of day. Are there others, or can visionary storytellers look to catch that lightning today? Yes. Will it be a flood of success that can translate to brands as well? No. It will be a trickle where a dam can open every once in a rare while, but for those who see the story and can engage along the ride, the reimagined, with the tools we continue to define in a marketplace that has evolved with the athletes as custom storytellers and targeted ambassadors, can keep us all dancing again.