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Rose In Bloom: Bulls Star Shoots To Be The Next Michael Jordan

Crain's Chicago Business, April 18, 2011

By Danny Ecker

Derrick Rose is on the verge of greatness.

Riding a fast-break to a spot among the pro basketball elite in just his third season, the leader of the Chicago Bulls is gunning for the franchise's first title in 13 years, as playoffs began Saturday. At 22, Mr. Rose is widely expected to become the youngest MVP in the history of the National Basketball Assn. in a couple of weeks. And with endorsements for big brands like Adidas, he seems ready to become the next Michael Jordan, in Chicago at least.

But even as sports marketers lay more million-dollar deals at his size 12-1/2 feet, Mr. Rose can't guarantee he'll make the leap from “rising star” to “global brand.” To achieve the fame that Mr. Jordan first enjoyed 20 years ago, Mr. Rose must overcome a number of obstacles. Not only will he have to sharply craft his public persona in an era dense with sports celebrities and fueled by social media, he must prove himself professionally by winning championships.

His biggest challenge, though, is his own reticence at basking in the glory. Mr. Rose is, admittedly, a shy guy.

“Maybe one day,” he says of becoming a global brand. “Right now, the playoffs are the only thing I'm worried about. If we win games, everything will take care of itself.”

If he wants stardom, Mr. Rose is well-positioned for such a transformation. His agent, former Bulls guard B. J. Armstrong, can draw experience from his front-row seat to Mr. Jordan's unprecedented commercial ascent. Another current sponsor, video game maker 2K Sports, recently became the primary sponsor for ESPN's live NBA coverage in Europe. And Mr. Rose's team boasts the league's best record, highest average attendance and most nationally televised games.

Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' vice-president of business operations, whose association with the team dates to Mr. Jordan's era, says Mr. Rose is well aware of his public image.

“Just as he has come to embrace his role as the vocal leader of the Bulls on the court after at first being reluctant to do so, so will he embrace his role as a star,” Mr. Schanwald says. “I believe he knows that comes with the territory, and it's a price he is more than willing to pay.”

Closing in on Top 10

Evanston-based Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing Inc. estimates Mr. Rose's current endorsement portfolio—he has a deal with Coca-Cola Co.'s Powerade, too—to be worth $1.5 million to $2.5 million annually. That ranks him just outside the top 10 among NBA players.

His most recent Adidas commercial is getting him attention but also highlights how his soft-spoken personality works against casting him in a leading role. The TV spot, which features Mr. Rose and fellow Adidas basketball spokesman Dwight Howard in the shoe brand's “Fast Don't Lie” campaign, shows Mr. Howard playing a piano and singing. Mr. Rose pops up only to play basketball.

“We haven't gotten to know who he really is as a person yet,” says Jim Andrews, CEO of Chicago-based sports marketing firm IEG LLC, who adds that the low-key demeanor Mr. Rose exhibits doesn't lend itself to a personality “performance” in commercials. “But all it takes is one major advertiser, a blue chip brand that puts him into a popular ad and shows a different side of him. Then you'd have other companies from other categories taking a look.”

If Mr. Rose follows the path of previous up-and-comers in the NBA, he'll branch out soon with top-tier partnerships from official NBA brands, which include Coca-Cola, Budweiser, American Express and T-Mobile.

Adjusting to Spotlight

The star guard, who describes his personality as “friendly” and “talkative,” says he is still “getting comfortable with being around people all the time.”

What may not be apparent in his reserved approach is the potential value added for sponsors. With once-reliable spokesmen like Tiger Woods and Michael Vick falling from grace by behaving badly, many advertisers are taking a hard look at the potential downside of larger-than-life personalities.

While his career has gotten off to a faster start than that of Mr. Jordan, who won his first NBA MVP award at age 25 and his first championship at 28, Mr. Rose is building a brand in a far different environment.

“Derrick has to compete with the noise factor,” says Ryan Steelburg, CEO of sports marketing agency Brand Affinity Technologies in Los Angeles. “With the explosion of social media, there are so many more touch points and more competition to rise above.”

Mr. Rose has more than 2 million fans on his Facebook page. But while seven of the NBA's 10 most-lucrative endorsers manage their own Twitter accounts, Mr. Rose does not. “I really don't like people in my business like that. I have a personal life,” he says of his lack of social-media presence. “Sometimes you just need time to yourself.”

Mr. Rose remembers watching his childhood hero sell his signature Air Jordan sneakers alongside Spike Lee on TV years ago.

“I wanted to be like him on the court—just on the court,” he says. “I wanted to be the player, not the person.”