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Brands on a Kiddie Crusade

Endorsement deals with increasingly younger athletes that haven’t played pro ball yet have left some wondering where sports marketing is headed.

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NEW YORK — They’re getting younger all the time.

Activewear brands have signed mega endorsement deals lately with athletes that not only haven’t played pro ball yet, but may not shave or know how to tie their shoes. That has left some insiders wondering where sports marketing is headed.

Last month, Nike signed a $90 million deal with 18-year-old high school basketball phenom LeBron James and followed that up with a $1 million deal with 13-year-old soccer player Freddy Adu. Not to be outdone, Reebok International grabbed some headlines by signing up three-year-old basketball prodigy Mark Walker, who is now an online poster boy for the company.

“It feels like something spinning out of control where one company has to top the next. If you’re in a marketplace and your competitor signed a high school kid for $90 million, what do you do for an encore?” said sports psychologist Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

“Is that what’s driving the train or the value of what these people are worth? Nike got an awful lot of free publicity by doing the most outrageous deal of all time. In that sense, it may be one of the paybacks. They didn’t have to take out an ad. I have to assume that’s part of their calculation.”

Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, views the big-ticket interest in younger athletes as an extension of the reality show trend.

“It isn’t very healthy,” Lopiano said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the kid.”

But she doesn’t think these big-ticket deals have much bearing on consumers. “I’m not sure people blink an eye,” she added. “What’s new is the $90 million. The public pretty much accepts the child prodigy in music and sports.”

Olympic gymnast Bart Connor, whose wife, Nadia Comaneci, became a household name at the age of 15, said he was “a little shocked” to learn about Walker.

“Obviously, they can leverage anything to promote their companies,” Connor said. Selling naming rights to high school stadiums probably isn’t too far off, he said. “People are looking for new and unusual ways to draw attention to their brand even if it’s controversial,” he added.

Robert Kanaby, president of the National High School Athletic Federation, said, “We will see free enterprise doing whatever they can to affect anything positive to the bottom line and they’ll explain it as an obligation to shareholders. That’s America.”

With the fiscal crunch tightening its hold on public schools, athletic programs are often the first area to face cutbacks. Coupled with the heightened interest in teenage and prepubescent athletes, that is expected to help advance corporate sponsors’ branding efforts in public elementary, middle and high schools. With the exception of Coke and Pepsi, brands have not had a major presence in public schools. Marketers see it as money well spent, considering children form mental images of corporate logos at six months of age, according to “Born to Shop,” a book about Americans’ shopping habits.

Headed by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, New York City’s Office of Strategy Planning is “looking closely at developing more corporate partnerships for athletic facilities in the near future,” a Board of Education spokesman said. Merrill Lynch and Verizon are among the companies that support more than 15 public school athletic facilities, but “no one has stepped up to sponsor any of the girls’ athletic facilities,” he added.

At this point, there aren’t any athletic sponsorships for athletic facilities, save for the New York Power, a professional women’s soccer team, that donated uniforms and equipment to a local high school.

Lopiano of the WSF isn’t so certain that corporate sponsors will be looking to have a greater presence on the local level. “What I’ve seen is they are pulling back into their major-properties cocoon,” she said. “They’re staying with whatever major investments they’ve made and cutting small things.”

But the University of Minnesota’s Kane said cash-strapped colleges already have had to turn to corporate sponsors to help subsidize their shrunken budgets.

“There’s this melding and blurring of boundaries that, frankly, used to be sacrosanct,” she said. “It’s not happening because educators think it’s such a great idea. At the end of the day, they have to have money to operate the schools.”

More student athletes are trooping off to corporate-sponsored sports camps each summer, with the hopes of honing their skills to secure athletic scholarships, Kane said. Sometimes their parents give them an extra push, as was the case with the three-year-old Walker, whose parents submitted an unsolicited tape of their son shooting hoops to Reebok. He now has his own Reebok-backed Web site that shows off his moves and encourages parents to tell the company about their talented athletic children.

Reebok’s director of advertising, Brian Povinelli, said the site wasn’t designed to be a kids’ marketing vehicle. The company plans to evaluate the site’s feedback and “will decide where to go from there,” he said.

Reebok declined to comment on terms of the deal, other than to say Walker’s parents will set aside some of the money for their son’s college tuition.

“This is not something he is being forced into doing. Everything he’s done has been their decision,” Povinelli said. “It’s clear he loves to do this. He’s a ham and loves the attention.”

Reebok hopes Walker’s site will help combat child obesity by encouraging children to be more active, he said. Nike claims its intentions are talent driven.

“Our focus is first on talent,” a spokeswoman said. “We’re always sensitive to the youth of our players. We want to watch them grow and develop.”

The spokeswoman said the interest in Nike’s two recent deals is because “this happened so quickly and consecutively.” She dismissed the suggestion that critics question whether teenage athletes are being overcompensated before they have proven themselves.

“If we believe in them, we feel very strongly they are going to succeed,” she said. As for whether Nike will be looking more closely at young female athletes, she said, “We look at athletes, period. We’re interested in talent in different sports.”

A few years back, after Imari Sawyer, then a high school basketball player in Chicago, appeared in an Adidas commercial, Chicago’s Department of Education became more proactive in enforcing rules for amateur athletes. “There are rules so students don’t buy into that,” a CDE spokesman said.

Despite that awareness, Chicago is on the lookout for more corporate sponsors. “We need more stadiums rather than [brands] just taking over [naming rights to] the stadiums we already have,” the spokesman said.

Alyson Cooke, CDE’s director of external resources, said, “We’d love to have athletic companies involved but it’s not just about money. We want them involved volunteering.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Champion Athleticwear unveiled its “Greed vs. Love” ad campaign Tuesday that celebrates the thankless quests of everyday athletes. Robert Hall, president and chief executive officer of Champion, said, “Ninety-nine percent of amateur athletes do it for the love of sports.”

The company came up with the concept after learning from consumers that “the vast majority think athletes’ salaries are out of control,” Hall said. “They don’t think it’s the appropriate thing to do. They think professional athletes are vastly overpriced. People don’t have any respect for people who participate in this.”

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