Commentary

Want Air Johnsons? You're outta luck

Updated: November 21, 2009, 12:13 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- The salesperson was rattled when asked for a pair of the latest Air Johnsons. She looked over several racks of tennis shoes before finally admitting they didn't sell them.

"We have the Air Jordans and LeBrons," she said. "What about the Kobes? Shaqs?"

The salesperson at the next two sporting goods stores were perplexed equally by the request. One asked for a phone number to call if a shipment came in.

One, not afraid to admit he'd only been on the job two weeks, asked, "What's an Air Johnson? Are they named after Ben Johnson or Larry Johnson?"

I didn't have the heart to say Jimmie Johnson, who's on the verge of making NASCAR history this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championships. I didn't have the nerve to say it was a joke and that Air Johnsons don't exist.

But shouldn't they?

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon & Jimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Nell RedmondJimmie Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon, right, has successfully parlayed his four Sprint Cup titles into numerous endorsement deals and TV appearances.

If Johnson could take his credentials from NASCAR to almost any other sport, Nike, Reebok or another major shoe company would be banging on his motor coach door for a deal. So would other top brand companies looking to take advantage of his accomplishments and celebrity status.

He's good-looking, well-spoken, certainly not a troublemaker. And most of all, he wins races and championships like nobody else.

His face should be plastered all over the place on billboards and in television ads.

But for many reasons -- some of his own choosing -- Johnson's overwhelming success on the track hasn't translated into overwhelming success in the marketplace or in fan appeal.

According to the Davie-Brown Index that measures celebrity attributes, Johnson is known by only about one-third (33.58 percent) of consumers in the United States. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. top the list of race car drivers at 84.04 and 81.05 percent.

Johnson is ranked 10th overall by the DBI, behind retired driver Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who's never sniffed a title and hasn't won a race since 1995.

That translates into the marketplace in things such as endorsements -- or a lack of them.

That's no knock on Lowe's, Johnson's primary sponsor that is ranked No. 145 in the Fortune 500. Johnson also has nice deals with Gatorade, Tylenol, Sunoco, Bank of America and Gargoyles sunglasses.

But outside of Lowe's, Johnson isn't the central star in ad campaigns as Michael Jordan and Tigers Woods are with Nike, Brett Favre is with Wrangler and Peyton Manning is with DirectTV.

"I've always been amazed at how it's different for Jimmie," said Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver. "He's a super guy. Everybody here knows that. He just seems like he would be perfect because he's not vanilla and he's got a great personality.

"He doesn't cause a lot of s---. He's perfect." If this were LeBron James going for a fourth straight NBA title or Tom Brady going for a fourth straight Super Bowl, they would be listed among the most marketable athletes in the world. OK, they are anyway.

Johnson doesn't make the top 10. Heck, he barely cracked the top 10 among NASCAR drivers in appeal on the DBI .

"It does seem like it's a lot different in our sport than in others," Gordon said of how athletes are judged. "Especially the ball and stick sports because you have kids playing those sports in school. They want to wear those shoes and they want to use that mitt or that bat or whatever type of equipment that those guys use.

"We don't have that. I mean, you don't have kids walking around going, 'I want to wear that Alpine Star racing suit, you know?' "

Gordon smiled. Those around him laughed. He's right. It is different in NASCAR, but Gordon appears to have overcome that with endorsements from companies such as Tag Heuer and appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and "Live with Regis and Kelly." They have taken him beyond the sport's normal boundaries and made him somewhat global.

Earnhardt has done the same with companies such as Drakkar Noir and Wrangler.

Johnson has approached different companies such as Nike and Rolex. They weren't interested.

He thinks all the time of things he's passionate about -- such as ice cream and tequila -- that he could push.

"You talk to all these people and anymore it seems the more romantic the deal is and the fact you really love the product, those opportunities exist more," said Johnson, who can clinch the title on Sunday no matter what second-place Mark Martin does if he finishes 25th.

"So the hell with it. I'm gonna talk about ice cream and tequila and see what happens."

Maybe the fourth title will be the hurdle that elevates Johnson to an endorsement darling. Maybe it will be the upcoming HBO Sports series "24/7" that will open him to a broader audience and convince companies people will buy what he's pushing.

The series that will air in late January and run up to the Daytona 500 in February is the first major attempt by Creative Artist Agency (CAA) to give people a glimpse of the fun-loving, edgy person Johnson is out of the car, where he appears calculated, almost vanilla.

CAA also is developing a branded video game for Johnson and has several other projects to capitalize on Johnson's success.

But will Johnson ever be to NASCAR what Jordan was to the NBA or Woods is to golf in advertising dollars?

Will anybody?

"In our sport the drivers aren't really used the way they are used in basketball, baseball and stuff like that," Earnhardt said.

Believe me, Gordon, myself, Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, everybody that has momentum, we've all looked at what shoe companies have done for other athletes. We've all pushed every manufacturer and they all say, 'No, we're not interested.'

-- Jimmie Johnson

Johnson has tried to change that. He has hired several high-profile agencies to promote him, the latest CAA. He has appeared in most of the major magazines and been on most of the same television shows -- SNL the exception -- that Gordon did during his run of four titles from 1996-2001.

"On any type of measuring system you look and things definitely have changed for us and are going the right way," Johnson said.

Part of Johnson's endorsement path is by design. He's turned down deals because they didn't fit his image even if they may have increased his visibility.

Some deals he can't go after because of conflicts with his current sponsors or sponsors at Hendrick Motorsports.

Business manager John Lewensten said the goal is quality over quantity, sponsors that fit the image rather than promote a false one and are around for the long haul versus short term.

"I look at our roster and think we've got strong partners," he said. "They compare really, really well and would be top of the line versus anyone in our sport."

And there's no denying the strength of Lowe's, one of the few companies that doesn't share much space on the car with associate sponsors.

"That's a huge endorsement that we sometimes overlook," said Mark Dyer of IMG Sports and Entertainment, which represents Woods and Roger Federer. "We take it for granted because they're the sponsor of the car, but they have bought a lot of television and done a great job of activating around Jimmie and Chad [Knaus, crew chief]."

Still, it seems Johnson should be getting more. Much more.

It seems someone who may go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, stock car drivers of all time should be getting Jordanesque exposure. It seems you shouldn't be able to go more than two television advertisements during a race without seeing his face.

It's not happening.

Maybe Johnson's too clean. You never see him in the tabloids for who he's dating or fooling around with. He's married to a beautiful wife and leads a rather quiet life outside of the spotlight even though he has arguably more celebrity friends than any driver.

He never says anything to embarrass himself or his sponsor. The worst thing he's done is fall off the roof of a golf cart and broken his wrist.

Keith Lambrecht, the director of sports management programs at Loyola University, discussed Johnson's situation with several colleagues earlier this week. They looked for sexy reasons why more companies aren't more interested in the driver.

"Sometimes people just don't appeal to anybody," he said. "He's a good-looking guy. He speaks well. He seems to have a lot of things. We don't have a good answer for you."

Nobody does, really.

"He's just been dinged for the whole vanilla personality," said Mike Mooney, the vice president of Millsports Marketing in Charlotte.

Vanilla or chocolate or strawberry, Johnson should be getting a larger piece of the pie. Maybe the fourth championship will be the turning point. Maybe companies will realize all the other attributes he ranks high in will sell products.

Maybe one day you'll be able to walk into a store and purchase Air Johnsons.

"Believe me, Gordon, myself, Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, everybody that has momentum, we've all looked at what shoe companies have done for other athletes," Johnson said. "We've all pushed every manufacturer and they all say, 'No, we're not interested.'

"I have been banging this drum for years and nobody listens."

Maybe it's time they do.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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