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The Big Pitchman

Shaquille O'Neal's careful strategy in endorsing products has him reaping big benefits

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

ATLANTA — There’s a good chance either you or someone you know is buying what Shaquille O’Neal is selling.

It could be the car you drive, the insurance that covers it, the lotion you slather, the breakfast or lunch you’re eating, the doorbell you’re ringing, the soda you’re drinking, the relief for the pain you’re feeling or the vacation you’re planning. And what’s more, based on every industry metric, you’re definitely buying the idea of an ex-player the size of a small planet whose bank is approaching a cool half billion — if it’s not already there — relating to the everyday needs and desires of you, Joe Ordinary.

Shaq retired from the NBA eight years ago but gets more air time than LeBron James from liftoff to rim. His commercials almost run into each other. It is, quite simply, one of the more remarkable recent developments in the NBA universe, how Shaq has managed a sports monopoly on product endorsements which includes but is not limited to working alongside a small cartoonish military man who comes up to Shaq’s kneecaps.

Yes, let’s all go for a ride with the General … in a Buick, of course. With a Shaq rap mixtape blasting from the speakers.

Shaq is qualified to appear on both TNT and CNBC. In fact, the business TV talking heads haven’t been this worked up over an NBA personality since mid-1990s Michael Jordan at “Space Jam” heights. Their estimates say Shaq, to date, has endorsed roughly 50 companies in his lifetime. Shaq’s current rotation is diverse and wide-ranging and very willing to make him the face of the product through commercials where Shaq, quite obviously, swallows up the screen.

And to answer your next question, yes, Shaq gets a piece of the action of some companies and multiple franchises of others, in addition to drawing a check.

“It’s really something I can’t explain,” he said. “I guess it’s because of my reputation or recognition or how I conduct business. We get a lot of opportunities.”

Although the evidence might argue against it, Shaq says he doesn’t take every offer and is actually picky about which companies to represent. He also lives by a few business rules.

One: The product must be affordable to the average consumer.

Two: He must believe in the product and use it himself.

Three: The commercials must bring laughter.

Product endorsement is a tricky game that’s only mastered by a lucky few celebrities, and even fewer athletes. First and foremost, the person must be identifiable and likable, free of controversy and scandal and the audience must warm up to him or her. In that sense, Shaq obviously registers, if only because he’s hard to miss.

A lot of times companies need to get the word out about something because we have buying power. So when they need to get the word out, I’m the guy they go to. That’s why everything I do has an affordable price to it.”

Shaquille O’Neal

He’s robust in size and personality, crossing racial, gender and generational lines. While Shaq does have his own social and political thoughts and stances, “I keep it friendly and respectful to all people.”

The business and marketing industry is religiously tied to someone’s Q-rating, a tool used for over 50 years that measures familiarity and appeal, to decide who’s worthy.

“In our studies, 72 percent of the general population know who Shaq is, which is huge,” said Henry Schafer, the executive VP of the Q Scores company. “That puts him almost at the same level as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. His likability is good; there’s no sign of polarization. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself which is a good redeeming quality. He’s a good and safe spokesperson to use because when someone sees him in a commercial or ad, they recognize him right away and engagement is going to happen because of his likability. And he has 81 percent recognition to sports fans which is pretty close to being universally known.”

It wasn’t always such a welcoming industry to athletes. Even the icons rarely if ever moved product. Joe DiMaggio was restricted to coffee makers, Joe Namath to panty hose, Muhammad Ali to roach hotels. Then OJ Simpson broke ground in the ‘70s and Jordan took it to another level the next decade, with Woods then taking the baton. NBA players currently enjoy a healthy relationship with products although most are tied to athletic apparel and entertainment gadgets. But none, not even LeBron, can approach Shaq for sheer vast.

It’s really something I can’t explain. I guess it’s because of my reputation or recognition or how I conduct business.”

Shaquille O’Neal

And so … how did this happen? How did Shaq’s brand portfolio get this swole? He says this was all “Shaq-cidental.”

At LSU, he bought a Bronco II for $1,500, only to be told he needed car insurance, which was foreign to him (“what’s insurance?” he asked) and beyond his budget back then. He eventually bought coverage from the General Insurance Company at $19 a month and many years later endorsed it.

With the Lakers, he developed muscle pain typical for athletes. Former trainer Gary Vitti applied ointment that inflamed Shaq’s leg … and quickly soothed it. So Shaq began hawking Icy Hot which, to this day, is his longest-running endorsement.

He got in early on Google, now a mainstay in our viral lives. On the flip side, he pitched for Toys R Us and Radio Shack, both now out of business. He went with Buick instead of the pricier European luxury cars because, sticking to his pledge, he wants products most people can afford.

He got lucky recently with Carnival Cruise Lines. The chairman, Micky Arison, also runs the Miami Heat, where Shaq won a championship. Arison asked him to pitch product and initially, Shaq was wary.

“Ten years ago I probably wouldn’t have looked at it,” Shaq said. “I always thought those ships were for old people. But I got on one and I was wrong. I told Micky that a lot of people don’t know how cool this Carnival is. I told him people thought like I did, so let’s do something (commercially) that’s really fun.”

A few years ago he purchased 30 acres in the Atlanta area for a home and wanted security. Some estimates by firms were huge (yes, even Shaq has a budget). He went to a Best Buy store (yes, even Shaq shops by himself) and saw Ring and put 10 cameras inside and out his home for $3,000 and fell in love with the system.

“If a fly flies by, that thing is going off,” Shaq said.

During a tech conference in 2016 he met Jamie Siminoff, the inventor and principle owner, and said: “I want in.” Done. Equity and commercials. Two years later Ring was purchased by Amazon for an estimated $1.5 billion.

About a decade ago Shaq met with Howard Schultz, the billionaire former executive chairman of Starbucks. Schultz wanted to expand the company’s reach and branch the product into inner cities. He offered stores and stock in exchange for Shaq’s involvement. Shaq was not impressed.

“I was like, I’m from the ‘hood and I ain’t never seen a Starbucks. I told this man to his face: Black people don’t drink coffee. I never saw my folks drink coffee. Then he says ‘fine’ and goes to Magic Johnson and gives him the offer. Magic gets like 15 or 20 franchises and I felt bad, especially now, when I go and see black people drinking coffee in Starbucks.”

Lesson learned. Which recalls Shaq’s most prickly product: Papa John’s Pizza.

The former owner and chairman of one of the country’s largest pizza chains, John Schnatter, stepped down in shame in 2018 after making controversial remarks regarding kneeling NFL players in late 2017 and later was overhead making racial comments on a conference call in 2018. It was a PR nightmare and threw the company into chaos. Major changes were swiftly made at the top, consumer confidence dipped, sales were in jeopardy.

Joe Smith, the chief financial officer of the company, approached Shaq, who loved the pizza. Shaq had demands, though: Papa John’s had to cut all ties with Schnatter. And, Shaq had to be named to the board, which then lacked African Americans. And Shaq wanted franchises; he now has nine in the Atlanta area.

And now, through the shakeup, comes a tasty irony: The face of Papa John’s is a black man.

Shaq said he received some backlash for his role in the company when he made an appearance at Morehouse College. Well: He offers no apologies and says needed changes from within Papa John’s only happened because of him. Shaq says he places special emphasis on working with companies that lack exposure to African Americans and other traditionally underserved people of color.

“A lot of times companies need to get the word out about something because we have buying power,” Shaq said. “So when they need to get the word out, I’m the guy they go to. That’s why everything I do has an affordable price to it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v

Along with Magic Johnson and Dave Bing, Shaq’s role model in business is Junior Bridgeman, the former Bucks player who created an estimated $600 million fortune through product franchises and other businesses.

Shaq says he owes his endorsement empire partly to a pair of forces: His role on the popular “Inside the NBA” show, and his own NBA career. He won four championships and is in the Hall of Fame. That counts for credibility.

“It’s not all about image,” he said. “It’s about winning. Would I have all of this without the championships? Never. It’s winning. I’m only Shaq because I’m a winner. Got three in a row, left one team, then got another one. Doing stuff is OK but I had to win. Had to have the validation.”

As for the show, Shaq wasn’t sure about his post-career plans once he retired after 19 years, yet chose wisely. “Inside the NBA” is arguably the most popular pre- and post-game show in all of sports and the weekly visibility from it has only enhanced Shaq’s presence with the public and in turn fed his commercial work.

“If we didn’t have a likable show, then I don’t know,” he said. “But this is funny, we make people laugh, we fight, we argue.”

This might be a strange question, but is it possible that a retired player can suffer from overexposure with so many endorsements?

“Not at all,” he said. “You can never have too many. And the stuff I give is simple, every day stuff that people use. I don’t do deals just to take people’s money. That’s not good business. There’s not a plan where I sit around and say, ‘Call Diet Coke.’ It just happens. I’m prepared for anything. What keeps me motivated is I define goals for myself. And it’s not just the art of the deal, it’s the art of the renewal. If you keep getting renewed, everything must be alright.”

His dream is to someday star in a string of commercials with his sons. That would allow them to get some shine, perhaps launch opportunities for them, or if nothing else become a unique family bonding experience. Given his rapid and consistent track record in the biz, making that happen wouldn’t be beyond his reach.

Perhaps a certain pizza chain would cooperate and allow itself to be temporarily renamed … Papa Shaq’s?

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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