No business slam dunk

His Airness has been in a financial slump

BY WARREN COHEN

January 31, 2000 (434 words)

Among his many talents, Michael Jordan has a knack for comebacks. After all, he captured three of his six basketball championships with the Chicago Bulls after he returned to the hardwood from a 17-month hiatus to play baseball. As the new part-owner and president of basketball operations of the Washington Wizards, Jordan must now attempt a different sort of comeback: reviving a beleaguered basketball franchise and at the same time jump-starting his own flagging business empire.

Since hanging up his sneakers, Jordan has seen sales of his shoes and jerseys slip. Although Nike's shoe sales were up 9 percent in the last quarter, Brand Jordan footwear--M.J.'s imprint line--was down 42 percent. Last year, a Jordan Bulls jersey was still the National Basketball Association's top seller. But so far in 2000, Jordan's jersey lags behind the uniforms of six other players, including Allen Iverson and Latrell Sprewell.

Even his luster among Chicago fans appears to have dimmed. Last month, owners closed the Michael Jordan restaurant, which sold food and M.J. paraphernalia--and earned Jordan millions in licensing fees. It had once been one of the city's most popular tourist attractions, but since Jordan's retirement revenues had fallen an estimated 20 percent. The new owners plan to reopen the place with a Sammy Sosa theme, dedicated to the Chicago Cubs' home-run slugger. "Every athlete who retires loses a certain amount of marketability," says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago sports marketing firm. "Youngsters and teens look at who is trendy and hot based on the athletes they see on TV on a regular basis."

Free throws. Of course, returning to basketball even in the front office may provide an assist to Jordan's financial fortunes. The Wizards, which haven't sold out a game all year, have reported a flood of phone calls from ticket seekers since Jordan announced he would join the team. As part-owner, Jordan gets a cut of those revenues. Analysts also think that Jordan can leverage his various corporate partnerships with his new team in novel ways. Ideas might include adding Michael Jordan cologne to the Wizards' concession stands, promoting his upcoming Imax movie on the team's jumbo scoreboard, even giving away M.J.-endorsed MCI WorldCom phone cards at games.

"His return has put him back in the limelight and he'll have a rejuvenation," predicts Ryan Schinman, president of CNB Entertainment, a New York-based marketing firm. As Jordan's basketball peers learned the hard way, M.J.'s business rivals ought to get back on defense.