~ S P E C I A L ~ F E A T U R E ~
"Be Like Mike"
an excerpt from the new book
FIRST IN THIRST:
by Darren Rovell
How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat
into a Cultural Phenomenon
The excerpt below documents a defining moment for Gatorade:
the decision to enter a $13 million contract with
basketball superstar Michael Jordan. At the time, the
extravagant endorsement was criticized by many in the
advertising community -- until the "Be Like Mike"
commercials hit, enriching the fortunes of both Gatorade
The commercials, considered classics, were drafted in less
than 48 hours! Gutsy decisions by Gatorade executives make
this a compelling case history of brand management.
More information about the book, First In Thirst, and
author Darren Rovell, follows the excerpt.
Be Like Mike
by Darren Rovell
In February 1991, Bill Schmidt, director of sports
marketing for Gatorade, and Michael Jordan's agent, David
Falk, met in Charlotte, North Carolina, the location of the
NBA All-Star Game that year. At a bar, the two started
throwing out numbers for securing Jordan's endorsement for
Gatorade. Schmidt said that he would be willing to commit
to Jordan for five years. But Falk had just finished
reading a story on golfer Jack Nicklaus's marketing deals,
most of which were 10-year deals. He knew that his client
was reaching iconic status like the Golden Bear. When
Schmidt left Falk that night, he was well aware of what it
would take to get Jordan.
Written on a cocktail napkin was, "10 years, seven figures
per year." Falk was prepared for a bidding war. His sources
told him that Whitney Houston was making $1.8 million and
Elton John was being paid more than $2 million by Coke. He
thought his client was on that superstar level, and he knew
that Coke had more cash than Quaker Oat's Gatorade brand.
In a move that might have helped seal the deal for
Gatorade, Jordan prohibited Falk from going back and forth.
"Michael always had a desire to know what people thought he
was worth, as opposed to what I was capable of getting for
him," Falk said. "And so he wanted to know without a
Falk had already told Schmidt what he expected, so he felt
it was only fair to give Chuck Morrison, the head of ethnic
marketing for Coca-Cola, the same parameters -- 10 years,
seven figures per year. Jordan had just turned 28. It
wasn't likely that he would be in the league for 10 more
years. The contract would not include a right to terminate
if Jordan walked off the basketball court. But that was the
price to pay, the risk, for companies that wanted to
continue or forge new relationships with Jordan, whose NBA
championship the year before, 1991, made him complete.
Coca-Cola crumbled under the pressure. It offered a five-
year deal at $750,000 per year. Gatorade stepped up to the
table, satisfying Falk's wishes with a ten-year deal worth
$13.5 million. Jordan would be paid $1 million a year for
seven years, $2 million a year for two years, and $2.5
million for another year. An added bonus in the deal was
that Schmidt had promised that Jordan would be the
exclusive spokesperson for the brand.
"It was the Secretariat strategy," said Quaker marketer
Matt Mannelly, whose brother Pat was devastated to learn of
the switch, since he was the chief financial officer at
Coca-Cola at the time. "While Coke was going to have a
different person all the time, we'd say that we would have
only one horse."
Not only did Gatorade have Jordan, but it prevented Coca-
Cola from using him for its upstart sports drink POWERade,
which was introduced in 1990.
"I think if you had kept Michael with Coca-Cola and the
advertising was well done, they would have been able to
dramatically penetrate Gatorade's dominance in the
marketplace," Falk said.
Falk certainly wasn't complaining. The 10-year deal that
Gatorade had agreed to became the model for every company
looking for a relationship with Jordan. From then on, Falk
insisted that if a company wanted to borrow the tremendous
equity that Jordan had in the endorsement world, it had to
sign a 10-year deal. Companies like Sara Lee and WorldCom
signed on, while others (including McDonald's) decided to
go in a different direction. The Gatorade deal was
completed in principle in the late spring, but Jordan's
contract with Coca-Cola didn't expire until July. In the
meantime, Gatorade officials scrambled to make sure that
they were ready to unveil a commercial as soon as their
contract with Jordan could legally commence.
There was a lot of hesitation at first. Hank Steinbrecher,
who had worked on the Gatorade brand from 1985 to 1990 and
had recently left the company, called Schmidt when he heard
that the company was going to announce a deal with Jordan.
He told his former boss that the thought the deal was a
"I was thinking, 'God, we were growing the brand based on
having a pre-eminence on the field and on the court, and
now they're going to go the individual athlete route?'"
He wasn't the only one who was unsure about the strategy.
"Signing this massive professional athlete and for such a
sizable amount of money was kind of like, 'Wait a minute,
what are we doing?'" said longtime Gatorade executive Cindy
Alston. "I think a lot of people were saying, 'We love
Michael Jordan at a Chicago-based company,' but there was a
lot of angst about getting it right."
"Gatorade had always stood for being for team, win or
lose," Quaker marketer Peggy Dyer said. "Not for an
individual star athlete. And that [signing Michael]
challenged some of the core values of the brand in terms of
what we stand for and does this mean that we support only
people who are star athletes, only those who are winners.
But we thought Michael was just so extraordinary and so
exceptional that he could transcend all of that."
~ Be Like Mike ~
Knowing that this was a big moment, Gatorade's advertising
firm at the time, Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, brought back its
creative chief, Bernie Pitzel, who had moved to another
Chicago advertising firm. He was lured back by the fact
that he was going to introduce Jordan and Gatorade to the
But when he arrived, he found out that the first
commercials had already been approved. One played off the
true story of a kid in Yugoslavia who wrote a letter
addressed to "Michael Jordan. USA," and it actually arrived
in the hands of Gatorade's spokesperson. Another showed
highlights of Jordan dominating opponents and doing his
signature dunks. The latter spot had already been approved
by all the top executives at Quaker.
"I was totally stunned," Pitzel said. "It was just a
highlight reel -- a video of him dunking -- and Nike had
done that over and over again. I was thinking, 'I came over
here to do this and this is what we did?'"
Pitzel was given three days to come up with something
different, although there were no guarantees that it would
beat out the spot that was planned -- the one that he had
so despised. That night, he went home frustrated that he
couldn't think of anything. He sat down to watch a movie
with his younger son. Disney had recently re-released its
1967 classic animated film "The Jungle Book." When he heard
"I Wan'na Be Like You," the Monkey Song in the film, it
"I knew that a million people wanted to be like Mike,"
It was hard to ignore. Number 23 was quickly becoming the
most popular jersey among high school and college players.
Pitzel had planned to run "The Jungle Book" music over the
video, with a final screen saying, "Be Like Mike. Drink
Gatorade." But that plan was quickly undone when he found
out that Disney officials wanted $350,000 to allow Gatorade
to use the song for a five-week commercial run. Plan B was
to develop his own lyric, mimicking the sentiments of the
idol worship of Jordan, but not infringing on the lyrics
owned by Disney.
So Pitzel went to his favorite restaurant, Avanzare (where
he did all his creative work), sat down at a table with a
pen in hand, and started writing the lyrics to "Be Like
Mike" on the paper tablecloth:
Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You've got to see that's how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move
I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
Four hours later, he was faxing a ripped tablecloth with
the lyrics to four different local music companies, hoping
that one of them would come up with a catchy tune.
Everything, Pitzel said, had to be done in 48 hours.
Ira Antelis and his business partner, Steve Shafer, a local
pair of jingle writers, had a chance at the poem.
"I figured I would make more of a song out of it, take the
'Be Like Mike' and really make it the chorus," said
Antelis, who was intrigued by the opportunity thanks to his
love for the NBA. Antelis hired eight singers to sing the
work, and when he was done, he knew that it was a smash and
that no other company would beat it. He was right.
That day, with no sleep, Pitzel and Tony Vanderwarker drove
the tape of Antelis and Shafer's creation to the American
Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, where Gatorade executives were
meeting. There, they heard "Be Like Mike" for the first
time, from a tape played on a boom box. No words had to be
spoken. They knew that they had a winner.
There was initial skepticism about the phrase "Be Like
Mike." The fact was that Jordan really wasn't ever called
Mike in the public spotlight. Gatorade and Quaker Oats
executives worried that Jordan would mind and that it would
get the relationship off to a bad start. Falk wasn't
initially thrilled, but Jordan had no issues with it.
"The dunking made him a god, and what we were trying to do
was humanize him and bring him down to a level to make him
more acceptable," Pitzel said. "As long as he allowed us to
do it, which he did, it was going to work."
Pitzel then dreamed up the commercial's image. He
commissioned a group of kids -- including many children of
Quaker executives -- to try to be like Jordan in front of
Jordan at a basketball court in Chicago. He also got shots
of Jordan goofing around and drinking the product.
To Pitzel's credit, the spot didn't feature great
basketball players. It featured kids who weren't stellar at
all, but merely dreamed of being like Jordan. In fact,
Pitzel's 13-year-old son Nathan is one of the stars of the
commercial. He tries to dribble the ball through his legs,
but things don't exactly work out.
On August 8, 1991, Quaker officials, 2,000 strong, gathered
outside the Quaker tower to see the announcement of their
prize brand's new spokesman. Tubs of Gatorade littered the
tent over the parking lot, and the spot -- which ended with
"Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade" -- was shown to the crowd.
In Gatorade's 26-year history, this was definitely its
shining moment. It was arguably Quaker Oat's shining moment
as well. After all, only a few months before, Gatorade had,
for the first time, passed oatmeal in sales.
One media member, predictably, asked Jordan when he had
changed his name to Mike.
"You can call me Mike, Michael or Air. I'll get used to
it," Jordan replied.
Within hours, "Be Like Mike" was on television. Quaker
officials paid $1 million to run an eight-page ad that
turned into a poster of Jordan posing in the same way he
did for Nike's "Wings" poster, this time with that familiar
waxed Gatorade cup in his hand.
"After leading the league in scoring," the ad began. "After
taking the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Championship.
And after winning the NBA title, what is there left to
reach for?" When the reader turned the page, the green cup
was revealed. Quaker officials weren't intending to copy
the Nike black-and-white poster, but Nike still threatened
to sue. Nothing materialized.
The next week, "Be Like Mike" was running in movie
"I say that when we signed Michael, Michael was bigger than
the brand," said Tom Fox, who began his work with Quaker in
1985. "I think we knew that we had a product that worked,
and we saw we were on the cusp, from a marketing
perspective, of becoming a product that was more
mainstream. That instead of people looking at us as 'Oh,
that's what serious athletes drink,' we thought we could
create that linkage with, "Hey, I'm hot, I'm sweaty, that's
what I should be drinking."
The advertisement was a huge hit, but Quaker Oats took it a
step further. The company made cassettes of four versions
of "Be Like Mike" and passed them out to radio stations.
Three months after the commercial was first aired,
approximately 100,000 copies were available to the public
for $4.95 each, with proceeds going to the Michael Jordan
Opposing NBA teams got their hands on the cassette, and the
song was used when the Bulls came to town, not shying away
from the fact that the arena was often sold out because of
the visitor. For Gatorade, it was free commercial after
"If we had used the music from "The Jungle Book," the
advertisement would have been forgotten," Antelis said.
"Instead, we generated a piece of music that we could own
that the world could identify with Gatorade."
Anchors on ESPN's SportsCenter all of a sudden started to
occasionally refer to Jordan as "Mike," a moment that
Quaker executive Matt Mannelly says was evidence that "we
had hit a home run."
"When we signed Jordan, beyond the court he was pretty much
100 percent associated with Nike," Mannelly said. "But
after "Be Like Mike," Gatorade was all of a sudden part of
Perhaps greater evidence of the power of the spot could be
found on the streets of America, where kids across the
nation almost immediately echoed the sentiments of the
commercial; they too wanted to "Be Like Mike."
"I had a kid at a Cubs game wanting my autograph because he
was singing it behind me and my kids told him that I had
written it," Pitzel said. "It became part of pop culture,
and as an ad guy, that's basically what you are trying to
do with everything."
About the Author
Darren Rovell has been reporting on sports business since
1998. Since June 2000 he has served as ESPN.com's sports
business reporter. He also appears on numerous ESPN radio
affiliate shows and on ESPNews, and contributes to ESPN's
flagship Sports Center, its investigative Outside the Lines
shows, and ESPN2's morning show Cold Pizza. In 2004, Rovell
was named to Newsbios' 30 under 30, a list of the top 30
national business reporters under 30. He is the co-author
of "On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business from
America's Sports Leaders." Mr. Rovell is based in Bristol,
About the Book
FIRST IN THIRST:
How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat
into a Cultural Phenomenon
by Darren Rovell
Published by AMACOM
ISBN 0-8144-7299-0, 256 pages, hardcover, $21.95
Available through this site or directly from the publisher:
Before America even knew what "deep-down body thirst" was,
four University of Florida scientists had invented
something to quench it.
Remember the Cola Wars, with Coke and Pepsi battling it out
year after year for supremacy in the soft drink market? Or
what about the Burger Wars, the legendary slugfests between
McDonald's and Burger King?
Then of course, there were the Sports Drink Wars. If you
blinked, you might have missed them, because Gatorade has
swiftly and decisively fended off every would-be rival.
Although a few other brands hold slim market shares, the
fact is that Gatorade single-handedly created the sports
drink industry 40 years ago and has absolutely ruled it
But Gatorade is more than just a triumph of branding.
First, it's a trusted product that has been scientifically
proven to do what it claims to do.
Second, Gatorade is an enthralling story, brought to life
in bright color and sharp detail in First In Thirst. Author
Darren Rovell, a skilled, objective, and passionate
journalist, chronicles every astonishing milestone of the
With unprecedented access to the inventors, the marketers,
the analysts and observers, and key company figures past
and present, Rovell recounts the sweat-drenched University
of Florida football practices, the first (unpalatable)
prototypes, and the commercial and financial interest that
quickly took hold following the drink's first on-field
successes. Then came the advertising, sponsorships, product
placements (many of them fortuitous), and finally the two
milestones that cemented Gatorade's iconic status once and
for all -- the ubiquitous Gatorade bath and the Michael
Jordan "Be Like Mike" endorsement deal.
With refreshing candor, First In Thirst also offers an
inside look at the negotiations, battles, lawsuits, mergers
and acquisitions, product strategies, lucky breaks, and
even the missteps (there have not been many) that have
attended Gatorade's reign as the 800-pound gorilla of the
sports-drink scene. Rovell places the reader inside labs
and brainstorming sessions, at board meetings and ad
shoots, on the sidelines and in the dugouts, even in the
winner's circle at NASCAR events -- where Gatorade manages
maximum exposure even at tracks whose official sponsors
include chief rival POWERade.
The book identifies the nine Gatorade Rules, business
principles that have helped Gatorade become one of the most
dominant brands ever. By adhering to these principles,
businesses in other industries may achieve greater brand
recognition and market share.
Long before America knew what "deep-down body thirst" was,
a team of university scientists had already invented
something to quench it. First In Thirst is the story of the
product and the company, and of America's fascination with
the one and only Gatorade.
"Given its prominence and brand equity, it's amazing we've
had to wait until now to read the story about the
domination of Gatorade. Darren Rovell will quench your
thirst by deftly weaving the tale from its humble
beginnings to its extraordinary market share and iconic
-- David Stern, Commissioner, National Basketball Association
"Without Darren Rovell's First In Thirst, how would I know
there was once a Gatorade called 'ESPN the Flavor'? At last
I understand how Chris Berman and Stuart Scott race through
exhausting highlight packages without becoming dehydrated."
-- Bob Costas, Broadcaster, NBC and HBO
"The story of Gatorade's wild success was just waiting to
be told, and Darren Rovell is the perfect person to tell
it. First In Thirst is a business book and a marketing book
and a zeitgeist book, but most of all it's just a terrific
book to read."
-- Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics
"First In Thirst chronicles why Gatorade has become the
'oral imperative' for athletes just like spinach was for
-- Joseph R. Castiglione, Director, Intercollegiate Athletics, University of Oklahoma
"Well dump a bucket of green juice over my head! What a
great insider's look at the building of a brand that people
-- Seth Godin, author, All Marketers Are Liars
"Being first, picking a shocking name and using liberal
quantities of PR are the three rules of brand building.
Darren Rovell tells the fascinating story of one brand that
did all three exceptionally well."
-- Al Ries and Laura Ries, co-authors, The Origin of Brands
Copyright ©2005 by Darren Rovell. All rights reserved.
Reprinted here with permission of the publisher, Amacom
Books, http://www.amacombooks.org. Please feel free to
duplicate or distribute this file, as long as the contents
are not changed and this copyright notice is intact.