“Michael Jordan will vigorously defend himself and his reputation,” reads one of many stock quotes offered to media by lawyers working for, well, Michael Jordan. What they forgot to add was that he’ll similarly go to no ends to defend his brand — and for good reason.
The words “Michael Jordan,” his famous Jumpman logo and all usages of the former NBA player’s likeness and jersey number together are worth $100 million per year by some recent in-court estimates. His brand makes him one of the most highly paid athletes in terms of endorsement income in the world. The key to the new billionaire’s success is a self-professed obsession with curating what companies he associates with.
So, what happens when a brand decides to use his name without his approval?
Dominick’s Finer Foods joined several other brands in congratulating Jordan on his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame by taking out an ad in a 2009 commemorative edition of Sports Illustrated. Unlike other brands, however, they included a $2-off steak coupon alongside an image of His Airness’ iconic silhouette and jersey number. Big mistake.
The grocery chain, now defunct, was sued by Jordan for using his name without permission. The store acknowledged that it was wrong to print the ad, and argued that a hypothetical deal at the time could have been struck for around $126,000. Unfortunately for them, Jordan claimed through his lawyer that he’d never even consider a deal that would make him less than $10 million. Ultimately, the jury sided with Jordan, awarding him an $8.9 million decision.
After the win, Jordan said it was never about the money — it was about protecting his image, of course — which would have added insult to injury if it weren’t for the fact that only two of the coupons in question were ever redeemed.
Just a few months earlier, Jordan took his fight for the rights to his name international in a landmark case against a Chinese sports company. Jordan sued Qiadoan Sports — which literally translates to “Jordan Sports” — in 2012 for using his name to sell clothing. The company used a logo suspiciously similar to Jordan Brand’s Jumpman logo, and its marketing was liberally sprinkled with Jordan’s famous NBA jersey number, 23.
The case was eventually brought forth to China’s Supreme Court in Beijing in 2013, but this time, Jordan lost. The courts sided with Qiadoan, concluding that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the claim that the company’s moniker was a direct reference to Michael Jordan. The reasoning was that “Jordan” was a basic surname that doesn’t necessarily refer to His Airness alone, and that the silhouetted logo they use doesn’t have enough detail for the public to recognize it as MJ.
And speaking of the Jumpman logo — Nike was sued in January by a photographer who claimed that the brand owes him credit for it. Nike paid $15,000 to Jacobus Rentmeester, a photographer who shot an image of Jordan dunking for Life Magazine in 1984, to use a recreation of his famous photograph for two years on its advertisements. However, Nike would later go on to use the image as the basis for its famous Jumpman logo, which Rentmeester took issue with — he’s still the owner of the image’s copyright, after all. Jordan Brand’s shoe sales rocketed to $2.6 billion last year, each pair complete with the potentially plagiarized logo, meaning this could be a costly mistake for Jordan Brand.
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Clearly we’re in the wrong business