Dirk don't need your stinkin' money
In the last six weeks, Dirk Nowitzki became an NBA champion, a Finals MVP and, according to one measurement, the most marketable basketball player on the planet.
But Nowitzki, 33, has never been interested in becoming a global icon or a corporate brand. Even coming off a playoff run that elevated him to a different category of superstar, companies still can't have him.
Nowitzki's always defied conventional thinking in the NBA. Unlike practically every other player, he doesn't have an agent, instead handling contract negotiations on his own. His only endorsement contract is a shoe deal with Nike. And now, much to the dismay of several industry experts, Nowitzki is as dismissive as ever about the opportunity to make millions as a spokesman.
"There certainly isn't a shortage of offers," Nowitzki recently told the German magazine Spiegel. "You wouldn't believe how many watch manufacturers have sent me their models. Just like that. I give them all away. I am satisfied with what I have. How crazy do you have to be when you can afford everything, but still clutter up your life with all sorts of advertising appointments? No thanks."
Nowitzki's made roughly $140 million in salary over the course of his career, so it's not like he's hurting for money. But in this environment, where the top NBA players can make nearly as much in endorsements as they can on the court, it's almost inconceivable to turn them down across the board. It's difficult to say how much money he's leaving on the table, but several industry sources speculate the number would easily be in the tens of millions over the rest of his career.
"I've heard guys say, 'We're going to be selective in who we take on as partners, so we can stay focused on the sport,'" said Kevin Adler, president of Chicago-based Engage Marketing. "But for someone who has reached the level of success he has and has the endorsement potential he has, to be more or less completely against the idea of accepting endorsement revenue, is unique to say the least."
It's especially jarring right now, with one piece of research released this week suggesting he's more marketable than any player in the NBA. The Nielsen/E-Poll N-Score continuously tracks the "appeal, awareness and endorsement potential" of athletes through weekly surveys and is often used by companies to evaluate which athletes they should try to partner with.
Before the start of the season last fall, Nowitzki's N-Score was a 35 — above average for an NBA player, but nowhere close to biggest stars in the sport. In the first measurement since the Finals, Nowitzki scored a 132, higher than any active NBA player and even a point higher than Tom Brady, the quintessential American quarterback heartthrob.
"It's quite a substantial jump," said Randy Parker, a spokesman for California-based E-Poll. "We frequently see big negative jumps, such as when Tiger Woods crashed his car into a tree. It's easier to change the public's perception of an individual in the negative than the positive."
Andrew Stroth, a Chicago-based attorney who negotiates marketing deals for pro athletes, represented Dwyane Wade in 2006 after he led the Miami Heat to a championship. He's seen first-hand how stars become mega-stars and the opportunities that result from it. And he can't figure out why Nowitzki seems intent on passing them up, especially with his built-in international appeal and European roots.
"Is it a unique approach, or a missed opportunity?" said Stroth, who no longer works with Wade. "He has an opportunity to build generational wealth. I respect he's 100 percent focused on basketball, but there's a huge opportunity for him given the strength of the NBA worldwide, and the fact he's German, it's a perfect storm. He wins the world championship, he's a global personality and with the strength of the NBA on a global basis, why wouldn't you explore opportunities he may never have again?"
- Sides trying to save NBA Christmas
- NBA players withdraw one lawsuit
- Kriegel: Anyone missing the NBA?
- Whitlock: Players stand up to bully
- Witz: Ball now in owners' court
- Horrow video: Kiss season goodbye?
- Whitlock: Jordan the owner is a sellout
- Reiter: Heat need lockout to end
- What players are doing during lockout
- 10 biggest lockout losers
But perhaps by turning down endorsements, it'll be easier for Nowitzki to maintain his appeal as a different kind of NBA star. It wasn't just his play during the Finals that captured the public's imagination, but rather his role as the foil to LeBron James. Unlike James, Nowitzki never made a big deal of his free agency last summer, quietly re-signing with Dallas for less money. Unlike James, he was clutch in the fourth quarter. And unlike James, he was only interested in winning a championship, not becoming the face of a watch company.
In a way, turning down so much money makes Nowitzki more likable than ever.
"The fact he doesn't want deals makes him that much more desirable as a spokesperson," Adler said. "If he ever does take a deal, it's only going to be a brand he legitimately believes in. And the likelihood of the wear-out factor, where every 10 seconds a guy is endorsing something else, that's highly unlikely to be the case."