A 2013 article by Business Insider drops the stat that LeBron James receives 70% of his earnings from endorsements. This same article puts Derrick Rose’s endorsements at 56% of his earnings. The basis of Business Insider’s article is to list the athletes that make the most money from endorsement deals. When you look at the list, two things jump out at you immediately. Firstly, the list is populated with athletes who have international appeal, i.e. Golf, Tennis, Soccer. But the second thing that jumps out at you is, in my mind, the most important factor, for it is the one factor that the athlete can control most directly. Athletes who vie for championships populate the list. This is not to say that all of the athletes on the list are constantly in the finals of their respective sports, but every person on that list has come to be synonymous with one thing… winning.
Winning earns you endorsements. The list speaks for itself. All you have to do is turn on the television to see the proof in the pudding. Russell Wilson in the barber’s chair talking about Microsoft products, or Richard Sherman downing Oberto beef jerky with Stephen A. Smith in his belly. These ads weren’t around last year. There is great value in hitching your wagon to a winner.
So when you hear players begin to value winning over all else, you can believe that they are being honest… well, sort of. Players value money over all else. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that, as an athlete, you have a limited number of years to maximize your income. However, more and more, players are realizing how much money there is to be made through endorsements, and the only way they can assure themselves of gaining these endorsements is to win, win and win some more. When a player like Kevin Love tells the Minnesota Timberwolves that they need to build a winning team around him, he is really telling the Wolves that their losing ways are hindering his ability to make money.
The reason why it is important to understand this is because star players are now, more than ever, willing to forego a high NBA salary if they know they are on a winning team. The threat of the Miami Heat players taking salary cuts to add a fourth star to the team is REAL. Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers and leaving money on the table was REAL. The threat of Carmelo Anthony leaving the Knicks for a smaller NBA salary is REAL. Players understand that if they can create a personal brand that is synonymous with winning, the NBA salary ceases to be their most important income. What good is an extra 5 million dollars per year on your NBA salary when you could make that up tenfold in endorsements? And endorsements can continue long after your playing days.
I point this out only to help understand how this affects the Celtics. There is a good amount of trepidation coming from the possibility of losing Rajon Rondo to a higher bidder once he reaches free agency. There is also a lot of fear that we could trade for Kevin Love, only to have him bolt in free agency as well. The bottom line in regard to both players resides in Danny Ainge’s ability to put together a contender. Rajon Rondo will take 15 million dollars per year, if he feels confident that the Celtics will be vying for titles. He knows he will be able to double the lost salary in endorsement money. After all, Rondo has a sneaker line in China. If the Celtics find their way to the finals that will equate to a lot of foreign eyes watching those sneakers run up and down the court. The modern athlete is a businessman, who is surrounded by a team of marketing strategists and public relations advisors.
The bottom line is winning equals money. Danny Ainge is living in the field of dreams; if he builds it, they will come. If the Celtics start winning… NBA salary becomes less relevant to the players on the team. Go ask the Miami Heat.