If you’ve been watching March Madness, you’re all too familiar with the Axe deodorant ad: you know, the one with the astronaut. In case you’ve magically tuned out all commercials in the past week, here’s the gist: Axe — a Unilever brand — is running some kind of promotion where you can win a flight into space. To spread the word, Axe created a commercial that features one of the most iconic moments in March Madness history: Bryce Drew, of Valparaiso, sinking a buzzer-beating three pointer to beat Ole Miss in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
The twist: after the real clip is shown, the cheerleaders turn their attention to an astronaut standing on the Valpo sideline. Even after Drew hits this amazing shot off an amazing pass from teammate William Jenkins, no one can keep their hands off an astronaut, because astronauts are even more amazing. If you win a flight to space, you’ll be like an astronaut. So buy Axe deodorant and be pretty amazing. Or something like that. See the ad below:
Three Valparaiso players had starring roles in that clip: Jamie Sykes, who threw an on-the-money inbound pass from underneath the Ole Miss basket with just 2.5 seconds left, Jenkins, who in one motion leapt in the air, caught Sykes’ pass, and threw it to a streaking Drew, and of course Drew, who made what in some circles is simply called “the shot.” So what do the players think of their recurring moment in the March spotlight? “I think it’s hilarious,” Sykes, an environmental specialist at an oil recycling company, says about the advertisement. “The only thing I don’t like about it, they didn’t say my name.”
Jenkins offers as more mixed assessment. “I like it, though it’s on the corny side,” says Jenkins, who owns a bar in Milwaukee. Even Jenkins thinks overexposure is hurting its appeal. “I’m kind of sick of seeing it,” says Jenkins. “Plus, I don’t need constant reminders about how old I am.”
(Drew, now the head coach of Valparaiso’s basketball team, did not respond to an interview request).
Sykes and Jenkins can agree on one thing: their compensation for the ad was too low. Without the passes from Sykes and Jenkins, and the shot from Drew, Axe would need a different spot. In effect, they’re serving as deodorant pitchmen; Axe is using their exploits to push a product. Millions of people watch March Madness; the brand’s revenues can potentially increase by millions as a result of this commercial campaign. So how much were Sykes, Jenkins, Drew, and the other players visible in the clip each paid for the gig?
“It’s going to pay one bill for me,” says Sykes. “Finally, it’s nice that somebody recognized that we should get something. But it’s not enough.” College athletes aren’t paid while they’re in school. “Without question, somebody is benefiting from this other than us.”
“The compensation, as low as it was, it’s nice to get something,” says Jenkins. “But after seeing how many times it’s played, I’m like, ‘come on now.’” (Both Jenkins and Sykes say that have yet to receive the $500).
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Unilever, based in London and Rotterdam, generated €51 billion in 2012 revenues. In today’s U.S. dollars, that’s $66 billion. Through a marketing firm, the players were asked for permission to use their likeness, and the players signed off on the deal. The NCAA, through a spokesperson, would not disclose the licensing fee it received from Unilever for the rights to its NCAA Tournament content. In response to questions about the specifics of the compensation, and whether or not it was too low, Unilever said, through a spokesperson: “We really enjoyed creating a spot for the new AXE Apollo campaign that focused on this iconic moment during the NCAA men’s tournament. In regards to compensation, unfortunately we do not disclose financial information on the AXE brand. Thanks for your inquiry.”
Announcer Kevin Harlan, who is broadcasting this year’s NCAA tournament for CBS and Turner, did the voiceover for the Axe ad; he did not announce the actual Valpo-Ole Miss game in 1998. (Ted Robinson made that call for CBS). Through his agent, Harlan declined to comment on his compensation for the ad.
The Ed O’Bannon class action lawsuit against the NCAA, which is working its way through the legal system, could change the dynamics of college sports economics. O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star, first brought the suit forward because his likeness was being used in a video game, yet he received no money from sales of the game, or a portion of the NCAA’s licensing fees. (The NCAA denies that his likeness was used). The suit, which now includes Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell as plaintiffs, is also seeking a cut of TV revenues for players. The hearing on class certification is set for June of this year, and the trial is scheduled for July 2014. If the suit prevails, players like Sykes and Jenkins might see much bigger paychecks for their 1998 feat.
For now, though, they’ll have to make do with $500. You may have noticed another commercial running on a March Madness loop, this one from the NCAA itself. The organization asks you to think of it as a “spirit squad, cheering for student-athletes at every big event, and every small one.” The last line of the NCAA ad: “Just know we’re always there for student-athletes.”