America at Large: Commercial appeal of sports stars from yesteryear

Palmer, Nicklaus, Ali and Foreman evoke fond memories of a more genuine era

Arnold Palmer walks up the 18th fairway and waves to the gallery for the last time during the second round of the Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 9th, 2004 in Augusta, Georgia. Photograph:  Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Arnold Palmer walks up the 18th fairway and waves to the gallery for the last time during the second round of the Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 9th, 2004 in Augusta, Georgia. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

 

Over the next four days, Americans of a certain age will hear updates from the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and think fondly of the genial figure after whom it is named.

They will recall his swashbuckling heyday as commander of “Arnie’s Army”, all those memorable charges up leader boards on Sunday afternoons so long ago. Should they catch the official host appearing onscreen during the coverage of the event, that familiar smile will remind them Palmer is the man who did more than just about anybody to popularise the game in this country.

Of course, some people will hear the name, see the face, and simply think, “hey, that’s the old guy who’s on the Arizona iced tea cans.” In these parts, the afterlife of the sports icon can be so long, curious and lucrative that a generation has come of age associating golf’s first millionaire, the first superstar of the sport’s television age, with a non-alcoholic beverage.

There are people who exist on a diet of this cocktail of lemonade and iced tea who’ve never even seen black and white footage of the unruly swing that drove Palmer to seven Majors.

This is the strange way of it with American sporting legends. Long after they’ve departed the arena, they retain so much marketability and such powerful name recognition that their earning power in retirement can dwarf what they drew down in their pomp. Last month, Under Armour signed Muhammad Ali to a long-term endorsement deal reckoned to be worth much more than the estimated $50 million he trousered from fight purses during his career.

A company born 15 years after Ali’s last bout, is rolling out a range of merchandise bearing his likeness, featuring “Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee” and more of his timeless (and conveniently copyrighted) quotes.

Half a century since he wrested the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, the 73-year-old is at an unfortunate moment in his life when he’s unable to speak during his increasingly rare public appearances. Yet, he remains such a viable brand that a whole new generation will soon be walking around with his image on their T-shirts and his rhymes on their backs.

Next year, it will be three decades since Jack Nicklaus won his final Masters. As a commercial powerhouse, however, he continues to evolve and grow. Principally known for a worldwide golf course design business, he just added an eponymous brand of ice cream to an already extensive portfolio of Golden Bear-embossed products that includes, among other items, sunglasses, lemonade, water, wine, hats, shoes and clothes.

“It’s no secret that I love ice cream,” said Nicklaus launching tubs that show him in his V-necked, large-collared prime. “Needless to say, I have never had so much fun in the research and development of a product.”

The fondness for historic figures is, in part, attributed to the fact so many high-profile contemporary stars (Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones, for starters) have damaged companies associated with them by becoming embroiled in tawdry scandals.

Aside from just tapping into good, old-fashioned nostalgia (witness Babe Ruth being exhumed recently to flog underwear on American television) then, there is a sense that the superannuated are more stable investments, less likely to do anything stupid to jeopardise their popularity.

With all of these stories, there’s always a question as to why a wealthy retiree would want to get involved. Boasting a net worth around $300 million, Nicklaus hardly needs the money. Turns out the profits from the ice cream and many of the other products to which he’s lent his name go to designated charities. Not that some of the blasts from the recent past don’t believe in unashamed capitalism either.

“Don’t ever stop earning,” said George Foreman in Fortune magazine recently. “It’s a curse to think you have enough. There is never enough. I never rely on my savings because we all know well enough that even the banks go broke. Earning is the greatest privilege I’ve ever had in this country. A million dollars? Great. But five thousand? Wonderful. I still appreciate that. George Foreman, Bill Gates, anyone – if you just sit back on what you did yesterday, you’re going to go nuts.”

At 66, Ali’s one-time foe is about to launch George Foreman’s Butcher Shop, an online retailer that will sell meat sourced on family farms across the midwest, and hope to capitalise on the public’s increasing desire to know more about where and how animals were raised.

Since more than 150 million American homes already have a “George Foreman Grill”, it seems like an obvious complementary business. And he won’t starve if the venture fails. Back in 1999, the makers of that grill famously paid him almost $140 million in stocks and cash to use his name on it forever.

Today, too many “stars” are the obvious result of clever advertising strategies and viral mass-marketing. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that corporations are reaching back into the past in the search for authentic giants who evoke memories of a more genuine time.

Arnie, Ali, Jack and Foreman all hail from a very different and simpler era, one when athletes became famous purely on the back of what they did on the course or in the ring, and recognition and commercial potential were byproducts of their wondrous achievements.

Which may explain why we don’t begrudge them top dollar now.

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