Last month, en route to a wedding, I was strolling through the airport and suddenly found myself face-to-face with Shaquille O’Neal, grinning at me from the cover of the “Success Issue” of Bloomberg Businessweek. I was, truth be told, quite surprised to see him there.
Now I do love Shaq. Or, at least: I love playing-career Shaq. If I want to put on my anal-retentive coach’s glasses, of course it’s impossible not to shake my head in disappointment at the wasted potential, the focus on the game that was anything but single-minded, the commercials and the doggone hip-hop music. But I’m not a coach, I’m a fan, and I want to be entertained by the NBA, and goodness did Mr. O’Neal ever know how to entertain. Please track down a DVD of the brief but wondrous Shaq TV if you don’t remember the size of his personality, the innocence of his relentless jokes, the largeness of his lifestyle, a giant kid let loose in an adult’s fantasy world.
It’s a bit harder for me to love retirement Shaq, who often plays a character on television that’s an exaggeration of this persona. But apparently that overabundance of Shaq-style antics is part of what has made him successful.
The Businessweek article about Shaq’s post-retirement success indulges itself in a Rovell-ian tour of Shaq’s plethora of branding and cross-branding and endorsements and cross-endorsements. “Shaq” comes off as less of a person and more of a conceptual capitalist node, a synergized hub where the masses come to be marketed to. Actual excerpts:
“He wants to be in your living room and on your Twitter feed as Shaq, the friendly giant who cracks wise and nudges you to buy a Buick or Gold Bond Lotion.”
“He’s also heard that Paris Hilton gets $50,000 per gig to DJ overseas, and he wants in.”
“After his retirement from the NBA, O’Neal and his agents convened a Shaq Summit. His commercial partners gathered in his Orlando home and each made a 15-minute presentation.”
“‘I want to be on the cover of Frosted Flakes.'”
“He’s a Froot Loops guy in a Ritz-Carlton world.”
“[He's] a self-described Froot Loops guy in a Wheaties world.”
Poignantly mirroring O’Neal’s playing career, this article still finds Shaq with neck craned up at Michael Jordan: Shaq ultimately yearns to increase his $21.2M haul from the 2013 calendar year to the size of MJ’s $90M annual earnings.
Between the bizarre fixation on cereal and the earnest pitching of a new line of Shaq-emblazoned cream soda to ShopRite and CVS and the desire to emulate the career of Paris Hilton, a theme of cheap chintziness keeps on resurfacing among Shaq’s many business dealings. Like an estate hawk in Storage Wars, Shaq is hustling for the sake of hustling, eager to shill for whomever will have him shill, pursuing ever-larger riches via pennies of kickbacks on so many $3 products.
And in doing so, Shaq reveals himself to be a member of an old and increasingly obsolete generation of NBA superstars.
The A-listers drafted in the 2000s do not exactly hurl themselves into as many endorsements for discount chains as they can manage. They’ve come of age in a commercial landscape that is exponentially more refined and sophisticated and tasteful. Today’s NBA player is much less likely to promote a product that you can find at Target and much more likely to—have you noticed the trend?—throw themselves into the world of luxury wristwatches.
Yes, wristwatches. Perhaps the NBA player’s attraction to wristwatches is a function of the constant influence of time on the basketball player’s life—the rhythm of the relentlessly busy seasons, the unending ticking of the shot clock, the inevitable losing confrontation with Father Time himself. But more likely: the luxury wristwatch is a symbol of the basketball player’s ascension to society’s elite, an item that hints at prolific riches, but in the subtlest of ways. Shaq, product of the nineties, is welcome to continue selling IcyHot. The NBA players who rule the league in these 2010s are increasingly interested in associating themselves with luxury brands, no matter if those luxuries exist in small commercial niches.
Chris Andersen, whose tastes have tended towards the garish in the past, is now an “ambassador” for Bomberg, a Swiss watchmaker. Even Andersen—of 430-person Iola, Texas; of the shady mid-career goings-on—has, unlike Shaq, learned thoughtful and methodical ways of expanding his personal brand during his tenure in Miami. From Andersen’s astoundingly enthusiastic statement on the Bomberg website:
BOMBERG is pure energy and I am thrilled to be part of a team that reaches from urban to top shelf enthusiasts. I am very selective about engaging in meaningful and over the top projects that project individuals’ statements, individuality in freedom of expression, and deep seeded beliefs in family, community, and friends! BOMBERG delivers those principles and I am thrilled to be part of their family.
With Bomberg stores located in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Alaska—and zero outlets in the continental United States—this minimum-salary, rebound/defense/hustle bench player has found a way to command a startlingly international reach, and among the nouveau riche.
But Andersen is actually on the bottom rung of the modern NBA wristwatch game. A Bomberg wristwatch will command mid- to high-three figures, which doesn’t cover the sales tax for the wristwatches favored by the NBA’s true connoisseurs.
Count J.J. Redick amongst the NBA’s foremost watch enthusiasts. Before this NBA season began, Redick sat down with wristwatch insider and tastemaker Benjamin Clymer to talk shop about his personal collection. In a short video filmed for GQ that includes as many cutaway shots of kitchen utensils and empty bar glasses as possible, Redick effortlessly dishes deep knowledge about upper-echelon watchmakers, already supremely armed with knowledge like which watchface diameter (measured in millimeters) works best for him and his body type. (A tip of the hat to Trey Kirby.) With the watches in Redick’s expanding collection all coming with a price tag somewhere in the five figures, wristwatches have become something more than a hobby for J.J.
Dwyane Wade has also become an ambassador for a Swiss watchmaker. Keeping a proportional distance above Andersen ($26.5M career NBA earnings) and Andersen’s deal with Bomberg, Wade ($121.3M career NBA earnings) is an ambassador for Hublot, whose timepieces also run in the five-figure range. (Do note the tastefully displayed wristwatch by Wade from the recent cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Money Issue.) Footage of Wade cavorting around Beijing and Europe in support of the Swiss brand is a helpful reminder of how dramatically different a life like his looks like:
Wade appeared on the cover of the latest issue of Haute Time, which would seem to make him the resident king of the NBA-wristwatch scene. Except that Carmelo Anthony is a founder of the magazine, also contributing a daily “Watch of the Day” post to Haute Time’s website.
My interest piqued, I tried to order an issue of Haute Time to scout out Anthony’s forays into the world—of all things—of publishing. And, well, just in case you didn’t totally realize how serious watch people are about the “luxury” part of these luxury goods:
Gee, I’m good. I’m more of a Top Ramen guy—but, unlike Shaq, at least I know that the NBA world is a Swiss watch world.