He’s represented by hard-nosed agents and sophisticated marketing gurus — but taking the stand in federal court Tuesday, Michael Jordan made it clear that he calls his own shots in his multimillion-dollar deals with corporate America.
“I didn’t do deals for anything less than $10 million,” the billionaire basketball legend confidently testified in a trial of his lawsuit against defunct supermarket chain Dominick’s. “I have the final say-so with everything that involves my name and my likeness … there’s no decision that happens without my final approval.”
Jordan’s testimony has been long-awaited, ever since he sued Dominick’s for using his name and identity without his permission in a 2009 advertisement in a special issue of Sports Illustrated that commemorated Jordan’s elevation to the Basketball Hall of Fame. His 30 minutes on the stand revealed him to be as fiercely protective of his rights off the court as he was a competitor on it.
He told jurors in a soft but determined voice that he had brought the case “to protect my likeness, my image — something that I value very preciously.”
Wearing a dark gray business suit, the 52-year-old testified that he took protecting his brand so seriously that he recently turned down an $80 million offer to endorse a line of headphones. He said that he would never have agreed to a deal with Dominick’s for their ad, which contained the words “Michael Jordan … you are a cut above,” and included a $2 off coupon for Rancher’s Reserve steaks.
“I felt like it was a misuse of my likeness, my name,” Jordan said of the Dominick’s ad.
“It didn’t fit the strategy we operated on,” added Jordan, who made in excess of $100 million last year by carefully selecting a small number of sponsors and tying them to multi-year deals.
Dominick’s has already been found liable by the court for using Jordan’s identity without permission in the ad, so jurors must decide only how much the chain’s owner, Safeway, must pay for the gaffe.
Lawyers for Safeway say the $10 million value Jordan and his lawyers placed on the ad vastly overstates the fair market price. Just two of the coupons attached to the ad were redeemed, they’ve said. They also have argued that a fairer comparison is the demands of as little as $5,000 that Jordan has made of small-time counterfeiters in cease-and-desist letters.
But Jordan’s former agent testified last week that anyone who wants Jordan’s endorsement has to buy “the whole enchilada.”
Jordan adviser Estee Portnoy spent two days on the stand last week, describing how Jordan and his team carefully burnished his image over three decades to ensure that he remains the world’s best-paid athlete more than a decade after his retirement from basketball. Her unsentimental business tactics included gladly accepting $100,000 from a Japanese TV company that did not understand that it did not have to pay Jordan to make a documentary about him, she testified.
On Tuesday, Jordan himself clashed with Safeway attorney Steven Mandell over whether he was qualified to determine whether Jordan’s mega deals with Nike, Hanes and Gatorade were a fair comparison for what Dominick’s should pay.
“I’m very much qualified,” Jordan testified. “I do feel that I’m qualified to determine how my likeness, my name, my persona is used in any ad.”
But after Mandell played a video of an earlier deposition by Jordan — in which Jordan said he was “not qualified” to determine whether his deal with Hanes involved more rights than Dominick’s took — Jordan acknowledged that was a truthful answer.
He added, however, “I didn’t grant Dominick’s any rights.”
While Jordan was previously criticized by a judge who is no longer handling the case for being “greedy” in his demands, evidence presented Tuesday showed that Safeway had a large advertising budget, spending $503 million on advertising in 2009.
On the stand Tuesday, His Airness also showed a lighter side. He got a laugh out of jurors when he donned a pair of wire frame glasses to review a legal document, then shyly said, “Don’t look!”
He gave jurors a brief outline of his basketball career, telling them how he’d worked hard to bounce back from the setback of not making his high school’s varsity team as a 10th grader.
Asked how his life had gone since, he responded, “I’m not complaining.”
The trial is expected to conclude later this week.