In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Black NBA players such as Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal dominated on the basketball court. They were, however, arguably even more powerful off the court, becoming American marketing and advertising icons.
As they dominated on and off the court, a new understanding of the power of Black athletes in marketing campaigns was reached. By 1998, The Baltimore Sun had published an article: “Black sports stars dominate ads endorsements: Doors once closed to premier athletes have swung wide open over the past decade.”
The article compared former Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill’s meager sponsorship deals in 1969 to his son Grant Hill earning $15 million per year in endorsement deals just under 30 years later.
Fast forward to 2021 and Black athletes across all sports are prevalent in marketing campaigns. LeBron James will make more money off endorsements this year than the $39.2 million that the Lakers are paying him. In the NFL now, Patrick Mahomes, Odell Beckham Jr. and Juju Smith-Schuster are among the pillars of American marketing campaigns.
Imagine if all of the Black stars in the NFL, or any other major American sports league, got together to form their own marketing collective. If they decided as a group to unitedly market themselves as Black NFL players.
The idea may sound far-fetched, and yet, as a recent discovery in the Mark H. McCormack Archives housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reveals, a group of Black NFL players — then referred to as “Negro athletes” — tried to do just this some 50 years ago.
In May of 1967, just months after the Green Bay Packers emerged victorious in Super Bowl I, two Packers players, Lionel Aldridge and Elijah Pitts, joined together with IMG executives Henry V. Kane and Edward J. Keating to devise a cooperative composed of Black NFL players.
Aldridge and Pitts, starters at defensive end and running back, respectively, for Vince Lombardi’s Super Bowl champions, came to Kane and Keating with an idea that would’ve allowed Black NFL players to collectively “cash in” on potential endorsement and advertising opportunities. At the time, only a few Black NFL players (perhaps most notably Gale Sayers) had accrued enough name recognition to consistently generate income through national endorsement deals. Nearly all of the other active Black NFL players in the league, including the Super Bowl-winning Aldridge and Pitts, hadn’t received this type of income yet in their careers, a fact that Kane suggested was “almost unbelievable but apparently true.”
Thus, the quartet set out to establish a self-governing cooperative with two or more Black players representing each of the 16 NFL franchises. This proposal, with Kane and Keating as the representative agents, would “provide a vehicle by which they, in pooling their talents, will be able to overcome the competition provided by the inevitably present super star such as Gayle (sic) Sayers, in a manner in which they would not be able to do if acting individually.”
While Kane and Keating would receive the normal 10% fee in exchange for marketing members of the cooperative collectively and individually for national advertising opportunities as per the memorandum, the venture would be fully autonomous, with the players adopting all rules and provisions needed for governing the operation. This would allow the group to eliminate certain players who weren’t deemed as marketable members, or establish retirement plans to help assure that long-standing members were rewarded for their participation.
With Aldridge and Pitts being “virtually certain that they would have no difficulty recruiting any or all of the following athletes to join in the venture by personal contact with them if agents properly brief them beforehand with details of the plans,” the quartet planned to commence the founding of the cooperative on July 1, 1967, just two months after their initial memorandum. However, as a fellow IMG executive pointed out in a letter dated June 28 of that year, this proposed collective was a venture that most advertising companies just weren’t ready to accept.
“My opinion is that [Kane] is in trouble before he starts,” the IMG executive penned in his internal memo. “If Kane had a corner on all the Negro NFL players, he could have a strong selling point. If he represented the famous Negro players, he would have a somewhat weaker point, but still a good one. … But even a casual NFL fan can see that, give or take a few exceptions, Kane’s players are the Negro nobodies of the NFL.”
Indeed, with few advertising companies aiming their sales pitches specifically at Black Americans in the 1960s, this proposed collective was doomed to fail without the participation of the more famous Black NFL players. “Where are Bobby Mitchell, Bob Hayes, Bubba Smith or Jim Parker?” the memo asked.
Beyond the lack of star Black players in the “collective,” the memo raised a broader philosophical issue: “I think the idea of Negroes banning together partly because they are Negroes is a step in the wrong direction. Imagine the uproar if all the white NFL players were represented by one man and the Negroes were excluded.”
Ultimately, this “Negro Collective” was never launched.
Steve McKelvey is department chair and professor in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Cyril Penn is an M.S. student and the McCormack Archives graduate assistant.
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