Does he know Bo? David Robinson sell shoes – and himself

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The commercial is for basketball shoes, but one of the men on the TV screen is neither tall nor athletically inclined. He is 79-year-old Rudolf Firkusny, a Czechoslovakian-born concern pianist. In the 30-second spot, he masterfully outplays a self-taught pianist named David Robinson in a piano duel over Chopin’s Heroique polonaise. Humiliated, the seven-foot, one-inch Robinson, who happens to be a centre with the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association (NBA), exacts revenge on the basketball court, drubbing the frail, white-haired Firkusny in a lopsided game of one-on-one. Satisfied, the handsome Robinson looks into the camera and, in a parody of the children’s TV program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, says: “Geez, Mr. Firkusny’s a better piano player than Mr. Robinson, but Mr. Robinson can really cream him at basketball.”

The unusual mix of highbrow music and sports is helping to sell shoes for Nike Inc. The Beaverton, Ore.-based firm says that sales of its basketball shoes topped $549 million in 1990, far outstripping its competitors. Industry analysts say that the line of high-topped basketball footwear with air-cushion soles that the 25-year-old Robinson endorses has become the top-selling Nike shoe on the market. As a result, media analysts maintain that Robinson may emerge as a successor to Bo Jackson, a star of both baseball and football, as sports’ leading pitchman. Because Jackson suffered a serious hip injury in January, his sports career now is in doubt.

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Unlike Jackson, Robinson is a star in only one sport. During the 1989-1990 NBA season, his first as a pro basketball player, Robinson was chosen as the league’s rookie of the year. During the past season, Robinson’s 25.6-point-per-game scoring average led the Spurs to their second consecutive Midwest Division title before they were eliminated from the league playoffs in mid-May.

Still, Robinson’s image differs markedly from most athlete-spokesmen because advertisers, including Nike, have played up his off-the-court attributes. Those include Robinson’s passion for classical piano playing, his record of academic achievement and his clean-cut image. Said Melinda Gable, a Nike representative: “The ‘Mr. Robinson’ persona is perfect for him because he is such a nice guy off the court.”

One of prefessional basketball’s top centres, Robinson took a roundabout route to the NBA. A native of Washington, D.C., Robinson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1987 with a degree in mathematics. A star of the Navy basketball team at Annapolis, Robinson was the Spurs’ first-round draft choice that year. But he joined the club only after serving a two-year military commitment on a naval airbase in Georgia. Robinson still spends two weeks each summer in the naval reserve as a lieutenant (junior grade).

In San Antonio, Tex., where Robinson and his parents now live, the athlete has become involved in a local education project. Last January, he adopted the entire Grade 5 class at Gates Elementary School in San Antonio with a $124,000 donation to the I Have A Dream Foundation. The charity raises money to encourage underprivileged children to stay in school. Robinson’s donation, including earned interest, is expected to provide each of the 90 students in the class with a $2,300 scholarship to attend college or university. Said foundation chairman Marie Goforth: “Apart from the fact that he’s a tremendous basketball player, David Robinson is a tremendous human being.”

His success on and off the court has made Robinson rich already. With a $3.7-million salary from the Spurs, he also earns hundreds of thousands of dollars more annually in a variety of promotional fees. His agent, Jeff Austin of Advantage International Inc., a Washington-based sports representation and marketing company, said that Robinson currently has promotional contracts with Nike, Casio Inc., the New Jersey-based manufacturer of electronic products, and Massachusetts-based Franklin Sports Industries.

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Robinson’s most valuable contract so far is the five-year deal that he signed with Nike in 1988, which industry experts estimate to be worth about $1 million over the life of the contract. Nike has several other basketball stars under contract, including Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls forward who is among the game’s top players. Nike’s “Mr. Robinson” campaign has drawn praise for its creators, Wieden & Kennedy, a Portland, Ore.-based advertising agency, and for Robinson. Mary Crozier, an account manager with Toronto’s Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell media-buying agency, said: “They are terrific commercials.”

Glenn Wakefield, national advertising manager for Toronto-based Nike Canada, said that sales of multipurpose running shoes, known as “cross-trainers,” were slow until Nike’s successful “Bo knows” commercials, featuring Bo Jackson, began in 1989. Since then, the $139 cross-trainers have become the company’s top-selling shoe in Canada. Said Wakefield: “The effect these athletes have on sales is phenomenal.” Now, the quirky “Mr. Robinson” campaign shows signs of making the talented Robinson as valuable a property on TV screens as he is on the basketball court.

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