In the beginning, the endorsement deal between Reebok and Rick Ross made all of the sense in the world. The sneaker giant was looking to increase its presence in the lifestyle market, which is dominated by Nike and Michael Jordan’s brand, while Rozay followed in the footsteps of rap’s #1 pitch guy Jay-Z and cashed another multi-million dollar check as a brand ambassador.
But after one controversial lyric, Reebok severed ties with Ross last week, leaving many to question who won and who lost in the fallout.
“Given the circumstances, I’m not sure there is a loser because Reebok got the benefits of associating with him for a while,” SLAM Magazine editor-in-chief Ben Osborne told MTV News. “As big as a story as this is, there are still people who are probably not that aware of it and it’s going to fade, but they’re still going to hear songs where he shouts them out or see videos where he wore them.”
Since signing on with the athletic company, Ross has become a devoted spokesman, showing off his shoe at every turn and even re-recording his own music to reflect his paid-allegiance. In 2011 the MMG boss remixed his and Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back” single changing the title to “Reebok Back.” After conjuring images of date rape with his rhymes on Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.” single and a ton of protest, things got derailed and Rozay was dropped from the company on April 11.
Back in March, when things were all good, Osborne’s basketball magazine SLAM partnered with XXL and Reebok to produce a special one-off issue titled “Kings of the Game,” which featured Rick Ross, Tyga and former NBA All-Star Allen Iverson on the cover wearing Reebok. It was a marketing opportunity for the sneaker giant, and for SLAM and XXL, a way to tell the story drawing parallels between the lifestyle of ballers and rappers. “In concept I think rappers are hugely influential on style, so I think it makes sense that sneaker and apparel companies want to get on their feet,” Osborne said.
Karen Civil, who started the hip-hop blog site KarenCivil.com and runs Always Civil Enterprise and handles celebrity relations for Beats By Dr. Dre, understands the value that someone like Ross brings to a brand trying to increase its street cred. “Someone like Rick Ross is very hot in the streets and he has that influence to the younger generation. Whatever he wears or he says he has the potential of making his audience buy into it,” she said. “He was in song talking about, ’I’ll die for my Reeboks.’ I don’t know if they’re going to find another artist who puts that much devotion behind their brand.”
According to Civil, who says she spoke to Rozay personally, the Bawse was already paid by Reebok until the end of 2013 and doesn’t have to return any of the money even though he was dropped.
Complex Magazine sneaker editor and respected basketball journalist Russ Bengtson doesn’t know if Reebok got their money’s worth; without seeing the exact terms of the now-terminated deal it is hard to determine. Still, there is no denying that Reebok has an increased visibility in the streets in their post-Ross era.
“Dollar for dollar did it pay off? I’m not sure but I feel like there’s definitely been a pretty solid resurgence for Reebok lately,” Bengtson said. “To not give Ross credit for at least some of it seems unfair.” He went on to acknowledge that Reebok can still benefit from a buying public who continue associate Ross with the shoes, thanks to all of the groundwork the rapper has previously laid. “There is going to be a little bit of spill over where people still are connecting the two. I don’t know if that’s worth them paying him through the end of the year.”
The fact is, while sneaker endorsements for athletes like Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are a tried and true model, signing up rappers is still murky. “Guys have made it in rap for different reasons than athletes. It’s for speaking freely, saying wild things, players have extensive media training and are much less likely to say something that’s going to make a brand look bad,” Osborne said when asked about the varying expectation levels between rap and athletic pitchmen.
“If they told [Ross], ’You’re now held to a higher standard’ then he should’ve been more aware, but if they told him, ’We’re down with you through whatever,’ it’s hard to really blame him,” he continued.
Still, it doesn’t look like this kind of deal will go away. Tyga and Swizz Beatz are still linked with Reebok, while Lil Wayne (who has had his own lyric controversy this year) is partnered up with Supra. Osborne says this type of brand-partnerships come and go, referencing the deals that Reebok struck with Jay-Z and 50 Cent in the early 2000s, before cooling off from rap for a number of years.
Whether or not Reebok will look to replace Ross with another MC remains to be seen. There aren’t too many clean-cut spitters out there with the reach of Ross, who has dropped five solo albums, four mixtapes and two label compilations in the seven years since he dropped his 2006 debut
“He can go back to wearing his Balenciagas and all those designer sneakers that I know he loves,” Civil said of Ross, before wondering aloud about Reebok’s next move. “We’ll see how they’ll fill those shoes.”
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