Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth

Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth

by Dan Wetzel, Don Yaeger

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On city playgrounds and in high-school gymnasiums, the search goes on for the next Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant - potential superstars who can bring millions in sales to the athletic shoe companies they endorse. Now an explosive and controversial expos6 at last reveals the ongoing exploitation of college, high-school, and even junior-high-school players by profit-minded sneaker companies ...

Thirty years ago pro basketball players wore modest-looking canvas high-tops. Today, sneakers are a billion-dollar worldwide business, with companies constantly developing flashy new designs, new looks, and new multi-million-dollar ad campaigns. Why? Because one hot shoe - worn by a popular pro basketball player - can become a license to print money. And because the potential payoff is so big, these companies scour the country for the basketball stars of tomorrow, handing out free footwear, free sports gear, and the lure of six-figure contracts - just to wear a certain brand of shoe.
Some young players choose brand loyalty by the time they are fourteen, as sneaker companies not only try to secure the allegiance of players, but also attempt to control coaches, teams, even whole universities.

Written by two of the most knowledgeable journalists in sports, Sole Influence takes you into this battle for the hearts, minds, and feet of young athletes-at any price. Along the way, it shows how criminals, including drug dealers and sex offenders, have ended up on a shoe company's payroll. More frightening, this book reveals how corporate money funneled into amateur sports has created black-market professionalism among college and high-school athletes, with promises of fame and fortune that for most players will simply never come true.

Hard-hitting, thoroughly researched, and deeply troubling, Sole Influence sounds an important alarm to a society that for too long has ignored the dark business behind amateur sports-and what it does to the young people who play them.

Dan Wetzel is the managing editor of Basketball Times. In each of the past four years, he has received national investigative reporting awards from the United States Basketball Writers Association. Don Yaeger is a writer and associate editor for Sports Illustrated. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Under the Tarnished Dome and the critically acclaimed Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446608947
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 11/01/1900
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 : Unlike Mike

His hair perfect, smile polished, and wardrobe impeccable, Kobe Bryant sprang to his feet with the enthusiasm of the eighteen-year-old kid he was. His name had just been called by National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern as the thirteenth pick of the 1996 draft. The Charlotte Hornets had selected the precocious recent graduate of Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia, who just weeks before had taken recording sensation Brandy Norwood to his prom. Now it was time to celebrate in the recesses of New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena.

Bryant quickly hugged his father, former NBA player Joe 'Jellybean" Bryant. Then his mother, Pam, and other assorted family and friends.

With TNT television cameras rolling live, he stepped over and embraced a middle-aged white man named Sonny Vaccaro. It would prove to be a momentous hug, one ignored by the commentators, the fans, and the media assembled to cover the draft that night. The hug, though, wasn't missed by executives at Nike and adidas, shoe companies sitting just miles apart in Beaverton, Oregon. In so many ways, it was a hug that changed the way the business of basketball is conducted in this country.

Vaccaro is the legendary basketball character and marketing guru who during the 1980s and early 1990s helped make Nike synonymous with the game. Now working for adidas after a bitter 1992 breakup with his former employer, Vaccaro needed to deliver a special kind of endorser to his new company, the kind who could establish adidas - a German-based corporation that was big in worldwide soccer but had become a nonfactor in hoops - as a player in the lucrative basketball market. Just as in 1984 when he delivered Michael Jordan, then merely a promising shooting guard from the University of North Carolina, to Nike despite concerns from his superiors and competitors alike. That marriage didn't just make Nike - then a company that was popular in track and field circles but, like adidas in 1996, a sideline player in basketball - competitive with basketball industry leader Converse, it changed nearly everything in sports.

"The marriage of Michael and Nike is the biggest story in the history of sports marketing," says Vaccaro now. "[If it hadn't happened] everyone's lives would have changed. Nike would never have been Nike. I certainly wouldn't have been this person. And maybe Michael's persona and his marketing thing might have taken longer. It was a threefold thing there. Every-one benefited."

And so as Vaccaro and his young star hugged on national television that night in 1996, the similarities were endless: two young and somewhat unproven players-Bryant nothing but a high school kid, Jordan an early defector from college who went third in the draft; two companies both desperately turning to Vaccaro to get them a share of the multibillion-dollar basketball market. Vaccaro, though wiser in 1996, was still the consummate insider, armed with his famed guile, street savvy, and a generation of contacts throughout the game. He was still a gambler years after he bottomed out as a card player in Las Vegas.

Thus it came as no surprise that within weeks, Bryant had signed an exclusive five-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with shoe and apparel manufacturer adidas, the company that employs Vaccaro to run its grassroots basketball operations. Bryant chose adidas after hearing Nike's pitch, but not spending a great deal of time deliberating over the particulars. Vaccaro's loyalty to and history with Bryant was enough. It was Vaccaro who had allowed Bryant to shine on the national stage the previous two summers at his adidas ABCD talent camp, invited him and his parents to his postseason all-star game in Detroit, Magic's Roundball Classic, where Bryant was named MVP, and sponsored his traveling basketball squads for two years. It was Vaccaro who had known his father since 1972, when Joe was the MVP of the Vaccaro-run Dapper Dan All-Star Game, the forerunner to Magic's Roundball Classic. It was Vaccaro who had known Kobe's uncle, Chuckie Cox, the brother of Kobe's mother, Pam, since Cox also played in the 1974 Dapper Dan.

"I knew this family," Vaccaro says. "They knew me. Ever so slightly, but they did. So when we got down to the personal stuff, I was way ahead of the game."

The only difference in how Vaccaro signed Jordan and how he signed Bryant or other young stars such as Tracy McGrady, Antoine Walker, or Tim Thomas is how much more work it took to get it done in 1996. As much as the game of basketball has changed in the twelve years since Jordan invited the world to come fly with him, the game of identifying and signing pitch- men has changed even more.

This is fact: Jordan brought Nike to inconceivable levels of popularity and worldwide dominance. This too is fact: The battle to find similarly effective stars to endorse products - to find "The Next Jordan" - has intensified with frightening seriousness. Where once a player, after being drafted or even a few years into his career, reviewed some solid business presentations before choosing a potential endorsement, now a young player can be slotted for a shoe company - particularly either Nike or adidas - as young as twelve years old.

Vaccaro knows if he tried to sign a Kobe Bryant the same way he tried to sign Michael Jordan ...

"Impossible," he says. "Impossible. Can't happen now. You have to identify them early, you got to talk to all the necessary people. There's got to be a foundation. You have to identify him and say who you want. And you have to have a relationship. You don't go in cold on anybody today."

Which has left basketball in the middle of a major war for the hearts and soles of its young players. Because just as Vaccaro and Bryant's hug flashed back to Beaverton and the headquarters of Nike, the war for allegiances of the nation's young players was officially underway. Nike knew that Vaccaro had found a way to beat the well-heeled industry giant at its own game. By getting in early with young players, he proved loyalty could outmuscle money.

Four months later Nike CEO Phil Knight summoned twenty coaches of Nike-sponsored traveling basketball programs - generally regional all-star teams that play in tournaments around the country during the off-season - to Nike's headquarters to map out a battle plan. On Saturday, October 19, 1996, with thirty or so people sitting in one of the company's posh conference rooms with stadiurn-style seating, across the stage strolled Knight - decked out in blue jeans, T-shirt, light-colored sport coat, and a pair of Nike running shoes - who told them in no uncertain terms that this was a fight Nike had to win.
"We never want another kid to go pro out of high school again without Nike being involved," Knight said, according to Tom Floco, a Nike summer coach from Philadelphia, and a half dozen other people present that day. Knight, through a spokeswoman, denied having made the statement, but Floco and others were crystal-clear. "There was no doubt what he said and what he meant," Floco said.

When Knight's quote was printed a week later in the Chicago Sun-Times, a chill ran through high school basketball coaches from coast to coast. It was suddenly apparent that if one of the most recognizable and powerful CEOs in America was stating that high school sports was now an important battlefield for business, the future of the game played in every community in America was up for grabs.

Knight's monumental statement, coupled with a broad- based and heavily financed campaign to identify young prospects and feed them into Nike's grassroots basketball program and compete with adidas' similar grassroots system, brought big money, big egos, and hypercompetitive recruiting to the high school and junior high level.

Nike repeated its message to its grassroots coaches scattered around the country over the next year, in teleconferences and letters: Establish relationships early and steer players to the company. All this so a certain company can have the inside track on landing the mythical next Michael Jordan, a player who would not only be considered among the game's greatest talents, but become indisputably the most powerful and effective endorser of products in American history.
The first company to find that next Jordan would, if Jordan's success was a yardstick, be set for the next decade. By setting an unbelievable standard-at his peak Jordan's annual endorsements earned him $16 million from Nike, $5 million from Gatorade, $5 million from Bijan Cologne, $4 million from MCI, $2 million from Ray-O-vac, $2 million from Hanes, $2 million from Ball Park Franks, $2 million from Wheaties, $2 million from Wilson. $2 million from Oakley, $1 million from AMF Bowling, $1 million from CBS Sportsline, and $1 million from Chicagoland Chevrolet - the greatest endorser of all time made the business of hawking products more lucrative than playing the game.

The irony is how easy it was for Nike to sign the original.

Copyright (c) 2000 Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger

Table of Contents

Cast of Playersxiii
1.Unlike Mike1
2.Shoes to Fill16
3.Sonny and George37
4.This Little Piggie Went to Nike57
5.Romancing the Stone76
6.Red, White, and Swoosh92
7.Wesley Wilson113
8.Mt. Zion135
9.Be like 'Mique153
10.Recruiting Rush173
11."Buy Your Own Goddamn Shoes"194
12.The Summer Season211
13.The Best Billboards Money Can Buy232
14.Free Speech for Sale246
15.Standing Tall257
16.Taking Responsibility for This Mess282

What People are Saying About This

Phil Mushnick

Phil Mushnick, New York Post and TV Guide

For all its clever advertising campaigns, the real story of the sneaker industry is one of influence peddling and the unholy, unscrupulous recruitment of children. This is that story, in excruciating detail.

Jackie MacMullan

Jackie MacMullan, Sports Illustrated

We always knew something stunk about basketball and the sneaker business, and Sole Influence lets us know where the stench is coming from.... A most revealing and insightful book.

Alexander Wolff

Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated

Details a war waged by two multinational sneaker companies and profiles the two men who serve as field marshals for each side.... A sobering read for anyone who cares about the future of basketball.

Armen Keteyian

Armen Keteyian, CBS and HBO Sports

For those who care about the game, Sole Influence sends a most disturbing message. Read it and weep. But read it. The nasty Vaccaro-Raveling rivalry and the story of Nike pitchman Myron Piggie are alone worth the price of admission to college basketball's house of horrors.

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Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Biggie More than 1 year ago
The Sole Influence was about how all the endorsement companies are tring to get future NBA stars to wear there stuff, so they can make money of the stuff that the players wear. The most important part of the book was the when nike signed Micheal Jordan and made over 6 billion dollars off of his Air Jordan series. I thought it was a good book to read because it gave the diffeculties of the players and endorsers which i thought was very interestering, especially if you like the NBA superstars that play the game today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sole Influence takes an honest look at what has helped to destroy professional basketball.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To an innocent kid whose family is on a fixed income the idea of traveling and getting free shoes is a great idea. Stories of kids like Jaron Rush and Gerald Wallace fill the pages of this book. This book provides the truth. These examples of bribery and ownership of a kid, as ugly as they may be, are true. Summer basketball is a deceitful business, which is acurately described in the ugly but true story of talented amateur athletes. As a player who has experienced the involvement of shoe companies, I feel that Sole Influence by Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger gives an accurate description of summer basketball. I have played AAU basketball for the last seven years and I can tell that the lies and bribery have gottten worse since I started playing. When I played for the AAU organization Spiece, Spiece was sponsored by Converse, but today Nike sponsors them. I have been given the free shoes to wear and been told to wear our Converse Spiece shirts whenever we warm-up. Our coach would say, 'Wear you shirts. You go those shirts to show people that Converse is our sponsor.' Unfortunately I was not good enough to be pursued by Nike or Aididas representatives, but I know others who have been. I know of a Class of 2000 Big Ten recruit who came home from the Five-Star Camp with more moneyin his pocket than he has ever had. This story is similiar to the numerous examples of bribery by shoe companies found in the pages of this book.