When Arnold Palmer died in September, the major media outlets lit up with coverage commemorating the golf legend. ESPN reminded us all of the major accomplishments Palmer had achieved on the course. There is no doubt that Palmer was one of the greatest athletes in history. He won 92 professional championships, was awarded PGA Player of the Year in 1960 and 1963 and in 1974, he was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame. The world was mourning and paying respects to Arnold Palmer, the athlete.
But we’ve overlooked, and often given little credit to Arnold Palmer, the businessman. Palmer was not the first legendary professional athlete, but he was the first professional athlete to be a star in the world of advertising. Throughout his life, he signed endorsement deals and starred in commercials for a multitude of companies, including Mercury, United Airlines, Pennzoil, and Xarelto. Palmer even had his own logo. Though he made a good deal of money during his career as a golfer, Palmer made around 50 times more through his endorsement deals.
Palmer opened the door for modern athletes. Nowadays, if you are a star athlete, you are more than likely going to star in a few commercials, and you are most definitely going to make a fortune doing it. Arnold Palmer was a sports marketing pioneer. Plenty have followed in his footsteps. In 2015, it was estimated that the 100 highest endorsement-earning athletes made a combined 917 million dollars. LeBron James made about 44 million dollars in 2015 and recently signed a lifetime deal with Nike worth over a billion dollars, the first deal of its kind. Peyton Manning, even at the twilight of his career, made around 12 million dollars from brands like Buick and Papa John’s. Even the scandal-plagued Tiger Woods, whose golf career has fallen off dramatically, made an estimated 50 million dollars in 2015. The sports marketing industry has become so lucrative that many of these players are earning more from starring in commercials than from actually competing in their sport.
Palmer’s trailblazing into the world of advertising and endorsements hasn’t just provided professional athletes with a side job. It’s also had a profound impact on our culture.
Thanks to Palmer’s efforts, athletes like Michael Jordan have become a fixture in everyday life. Jordan has become a fashion mogul, selling a shoe that thousands of people line up to buy every time a new pair comes out. Michael Jordan’s name is going to be relevant forever. As if he weren’t good enough on the court, Jordan’s brand has ascended him to god-status across the globe.
As athletes have etched out regular appearances on our TVs, trying to get us to drink Sprite, people have come to appreciate athletes not only for their performance on the field, but also for their personality. Take Tim Tebow for example. Terrible quarterback, but football fans sure did love him. Never mind that he had one of the worst completion percentages in the modern era. He’s a humble guy with a very marketable and note-worthy personality. O’Dell Beckham is another great example. I don’t even remember how well he played in week eight, but I do know that he proposed to a kicking net and became a viral meme.
Sports have become more personal, and we ultimately have Arnold Palmer to thank for that, as he was the first pro athlete to think to sell his smile and charisma. And as Palmer opened the door for professional sports to have a presence in our everyday lives, these professional sports leagues have become more deeply embedded in our culture.
If nothing else, Palmer’s ventures into sports marketing paved a path for some athletes to stay relevant. Like Tiger Woods. Or Clay Matthews. I didn’t even know Matthews was still in the NFL until I saw him on a State Farm commercial the other day.
Arnold Palmer’s golf career was remarkable, but his marketing career changed the world. So next time you hear Peyton Manning try to sell you auto insurance and a pizza, mix some lemonade and iced tea in honor of ol’ Arnie.