Can Michael Jordan rebound?
After his Charlotte Bobcats suffer the worst season in NBA history and critics start to lash out, MJ seems to be trying to bolster his image.
Kicking off a year of moralistic takedowns, TOC editorial partner ChicagoSide Sports published a mid-January essay titled, “Michael Jordan is a jerk.” And when Jordan attended a Blackhawks playoff game at the United Center this past spring while the Bobcats were mired in a 23-game skid to close out their futile season, the Sun-Times’ Rick Telander, one of the city’s most respected sports columnists, was so incensed that he poison-penned an April 24 piece headlined, “Michael Jordan is a disgrace as NBA owner.”
Jordan “seems to stand for nothing,” Telander charged. “No charities, no statements about world issues, no cares beyond himself, no strength of character, no using the astounding public platform he has. Is his image bulletproof? Is the public so shallow that it will gawk at His Airness forever, even as his feet of clay turn to mud?”
Judging by the solid majority of reader responses to that plaintive cry on the Sun-Times site—comments that defended Jordan and attacked Telander in equal measure—the answer to the columnist’s question seems to be, simply, yes: The public, especially in Chicago, will keep on loving MJ come hell or Hitlerian mustache.
Most of them will, that is. Type Michael Jordan is into a Google search box these days and the autocomplete function, which draws on popular search phrases, will spit out such pleasant sentences as:
michael jordan is a jerk
michael jordan is overrated
michael jordan is a douche
michael jordan is a douchebag
michael jordan is a bad person
michael jordan is fat
Disgruntled sports writers and autocomplete misadventures aside, Jordan remains hugely popular, according to the market-research data that helps consumer brands determine which celebrity pitchmen to hire. For instance, the Q Scores survey, which measures the connection between consumers and a given celebrity, ranks Jordan the nation’s most popular sports personality, active or retired.
New York–based the Q Scores Co. has been quantifying celebrity popularity for advertising clients since 1964. In the company’s latest general celebrity survey of 2,000 U.S. residents, completed in July, Jordan boasts 83 percent consumer awareness and a positive Q Score of 30 (derived by dividing the percentage of respondents who rate Jordan “one of my favorites” by his awareness percentage; the average sports personality has a positive Q Score of 16).
Though his awareness level has tailed off over time, Michael Jordan “is over the past 20-plus years one of the most resilient celebrities of any kind,” says Henry Schafer, Q Scores executive vice president. Despite rumors of marital infidelity, gambling binges, jerky behavior toward teammates, poor draft selections for the Bobcats and his bellicose stance during the lockout, Jordan’s negative ratings have never come close to those of controversial current NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. “He’s got a suit of armor around him,” Schafer says. An expensive no-fault divorce from wife Juanita in 2006 also helped keep negative headlines to a minimum.
Consumer research firm Nielsen also produces celebrity rankings, called N-Scores, in conjunction with E-Poll Market Research, regularly surveying 1,100 households nationally. Jordan’s N-Score is now 553, down from 682 in September 2010, but he’s still the top-ranked sports personality in the poll. In the separate N-Score poll of 900 Chicago households, MJ’s score is nearly 900, a stratospheric number.
“Locally, he’s still very much beloved and thought of as the face of Chicago sports,” says Stephen Master, a Nielsen senior VP who heads the company’s sports division. But that 129-point national drop means Jordan lost the equivalent of Andre Agassi’s entire N-Score in less than two years. Will that dip be enough to lower Jordan’s endorsement earnings, which now top $60 million a year, according to Forbes?
Unlikely, says Master: “He’s tailed off a little bit nationally just because the awareness has slipped.” As recently as 2008, 84 percent of national Nielsen respondents were aware of Jordan; that has dipped to 72 percent this year. But his positive rating has only decreased from 93 percent to 91 percent in that time, while his negatives edged up to 9 percent from 7. “The positivity has slipped a bit because he has not done well as a basketball executive,” Master suggests. “But he’s one of the most effective pitchmen ever. Across the general population, nobody scores like he does.”
In addition to exploiting our warm memories of his playing days and avoiding big scandals, Jordan’s enduring popularity can be attributed to something else, Master says: “He never had the posse a lot of these guys have now, like LeBron James,” and he hasn’t gotten inked up with tattoos. But isn’t that just a politic way of saying Jordan’s beloved in part because white America doesn’t see him as a scary black man?
“He was as safe as you could get,” Master agrees, comparing Jordan’s public persona to that of Magic Johnson. Poll respondents see Jordan as a leader, a down-to-earth person and a gentleman, the Nielsen veep adds. “He’s done a phenomenal job of shaping his image in a positive way even after he left Chicago. He’s got a lot of years ahead of him. The Jordan Brand isn’t going anywhere.”