Breaking into professional sports was a long and arduous road for Black athletes. For many years in the United States, there were two baseball leagues. The all-white Major League Baseball and all-Black Negro Leagues. As integration became more accepted in the 1950s, the Negro Leagues faded away, and the MLB absorbed all of their top talent.
But even for those players who were now accepted, the fight to make some of the money available to top white athletes through sponsorship would be another battle entirely. Many businesses, mostly led by old white businessmen, didn’t believe that people of color advertising their products would be good for their bottom line.
As the world changed and old attitudes started to die off or change, there were plenty of major strides made in advertising campaigns. Now, even college students, and especially Black athletes, have plenty of opportunities to make extra money, according to Black sports news.
Owens Became First Sponsored Athlete
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were a high-water mark for American sprinter Jesse Owens. Competing in Germany, where Chancellor Adolf Hitler sought to use the Olympics as a showcase for German supremacy, Owens won four gold medals. While politics will consistently be an overarching theme for Black athletes throughout sports history, this was one of the more tense moments on the world stage.
Owens would end up winning the events in a pair of German-made shoes. Rudolf and Adolf Dassler made a pair of shoes with hand-made cleats. Owens was impressed by the shoes and said he would compete in those or no shoes at all. After his dominance, Owens had the pleasure of knowing he showed up Hitler while wearing German shoes.
The Dasslers eventually had a feud in 1949 and established separate companies. Adolf founded Adidas, which is the largest sportswear manufacturer in Europe, while Rudolf founded Puma. Both companies have sponsored a number of modern Black athletes.
Jordan Changes the Game
Few athletes have been as successful with advertising as former Chicago Bulls star guard Michael Jordan. Since he emerged to prominence in the mid-1980s, Nike has built an entire empire around marketing shoes with his likeness. By the late 1990s, Nike had spun the Jordan Brand into a separate company.
Jordan receives 5 percent of the profits from the Jordan Brand, which pulls in billions of dollars every year. Since 1985, there have been 37 different versions of the Jordan sneakers, which have become a cultural icon. But Jordan’s appeal, driven by his desire to win and success on the court, spilled over into more marketing and advertising than anyone could imagine.
Jordan advertised for McDonald’s and Gatorade and has even starred in his own movie, Space Jam, along with having his likeness on countless memorabilia. There were few companies that didn’t want to be involved with his brand.
Tiger Woods Broke Open New Audience
The boom surrounding golf with Tiger Woods is one of the more interesting examples of how sponsorship can affect sports. While Woods, the first Black athlete to win major golf championships, had immeasurable success and drew big advertising deals with Nike, Gatorade, and many other companies, Wood’s impact at the professional level hasn’t been as profound.
Currently, there are only four Black golfers on the PGA Tour, one of whom is Woods himself. While Woods did show people of color that they could be successful on the golf course, the number of black competitors making the professional tour in his wake has lagged behind.
Golf is a sport where it is difficult to make it professionally without having money to play and practice or the ability to get top coaching. Woods made himself a lot of money and inspired an entire group of people to try the sport. Seeing some of those admirers make the tour and stay there will be one of the challenges in getting more people of color interested in the game.
Serena Keeps Up Fight for Equality
Serena Williams is one of the best tennis players ever. When Williams recently retired, she finished with 23 Grand Slam championships. She is one short of tying Margaret Court for the most major championships in a career.
Williams and her sister, Venus, caught the eyes of sponsors as teenagers. By getting involved with Nike and other companies, both sisters were able to carve out strong careers and make a lot of money outside the purses they won for winning tournaments.
One of the biggest fights for Serena Williams has been a push for equal pay. She was always putting pressure on tennis tournaments to offer similar purses for events. Since the women drew high television ratings, she felt they deserved an equal share to the men in payments.
Anyone looking at up-to-date sports news will see that the Williams sisters’ success has led to many other top Black female athletes finding success in tennis. The U.S. Open 2017 featured a final pitting Sloane Stephens against Madison Keys, who are both Black American players. Stephens won the matchup to grab the crown in the first all-Black U.S. Open final.
O.J. Simpson Made Impact as Pitchman
The disgraced former NFL star had an entire life following football, where he was better known for his work in media. In addition to starring in The Naked Gun, The Towering Inferno, and other projects, Simpson was a long-time pitchman for Hertz Rent-A-Car. He also did a commercial for RC Cola.
Simpson would have likely had a lifetime of work in advertising, as people liked his personality and he had a quick smile. However, Simpson ran into legal issues in the mid-1990s after the murder of his wife. While Simpson was found innocent in the criminal trial, his reputation never recovered.
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