When Ed O’Bannon, 38, is meeting with a customer at the Findlay Toyota dealership in Henderson, Nevada — where he’s been employed as a public relations manager for the last five years — he doesn’t make a point of reminding them about his former career. “If they recognize me, that’s cool,” he says. “But I don’t go out of my way to tell people who I am.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the walls of his office are covered with basketball memorabilia, including his original UCLA jersey. But these mementos of the past are just, in his words, “conversation pieces.” They’re a way to put the customer at ease, to “let him know that this is where I’m coming from, this is what I’ve done and you have nothing to worry about, I’m a good guy.”
For a brief period during the 1995 NCAA Basketball Championship, O’Bannon was a superstar. He helped lead the UCLA Bruins to a victory over the University of Arkansas, scoring 30 points and taking 17 rebounds. But then he went on to a less than spectacular NBA career with the New Jersey Nets, followed by years of playing overseas in Italy, Spain, Greece and Poland before retiring in 2002. His collegiate March Madness legacy remains his biggest achievement, one that he’s hesitant to use as a marketing tool. He’s happy to answer questions, which tends to happen whenever his co-workers ask customers, “Do you like basketball? You should meet Ed. He played in an NCAA tournament.” But he prefers not to live in the past. “I’m just a guy who used to play basketball,” he says, “and wants to help people buy cars.”
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and that NCAA fame doesn’t always translate to a long basketball career. It’s a harsh reality that the top players on your March Madness bracket are unlikely to go onto NBA glory, or even a short run as a professional athlete. There are 336 Division 1 schools, with an average of 15 players per team, and only 30 NBA teams waiting for them on the other side. That means the odds of even the best performers going on to a post-collegiate career are, optimistically, somewhere around 1%. What’s a former NCAA luminary to do when he’s got nothing to sell but his March Madness highlight reel? He works with what he’s got — or, as the case may be, what he had.
It’s not really such a crazy business strategy. “Fans are loyal to teams and true zealots have a long memory,” says Alan Zaremba, the author of Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas. He knows many NCAA enthusiasts who can still rattle off the statistics of their favorite March Madness players, even those who were never drafted into the NBA. “It doesn’t surprise me that athletes are successful using their fame,” he says, “however short-lived the fame might have been, to increase sales.”
The degree to which it actually works can be hit or miss. Christian Laettner, the Duke University player who’s buzzer beater shot during the 1992 East Regional final is still the stuff of NCAA legend, didn’t have much luck with Blue Devil Ventures, a real estate development company that’s currently being sued for millions by several investors. But Jeff Sheppard, who helped the University of Kentucky win two national championships in 1996 and 1998, has had better luck. His apparel company, 15inc — named after his Wildcats jersey number — was established in 2007 and has grown steadily over the last four years. Most of his business comes from schools and local businesses across Kentucky, including the University of Kentucky, Kentucky Ducks Unlimited, and the U.S. Marine Corps. His chances of making a sale improve exponentially, he says, if he gets to make his pitch in front of the customer. “They definitely make the connection to the 15inc name if they meet me in person,” he says.
It also doesn’t hurt that 15inc is based in London, Kentucky, just an hour south of Lexington, where Sheppard made NCAA history. “Everybody in Kentucky remembers and appreciates the ‘96 and ‘98 championships,” he says. “They remember where they were when it happened, and a lot of them were at the games.” Being a local hero is good for business, and he suspects he’ll continue to be signing autographs, sometimes on his own merchandise, for the foreseeable future, or at least “until the Wildcats win another championship.”
But not everybody is so eager to trade off their basketball legacy. Greg Koubek, who led the Duke Blue Devils to an NCAA Championship in 1991 and became the first to play in four NCAA Final Fours, opened a basketball camp in Clifton Park, New York with his brother Tim during the height of his fame in the early 90s. But though he named it the “Greg Koubek Basketball Camp,” he insists that the name recognition has only ever been a stepping stone.
“In the beginning, it certainly helped,” he admits. “But now, people come to the camp because it’s a good camp, it’s a quality camp. They don’t come because of the name. They equate the name, the Greg Koubek Basketball Camp, with a quality camp that they want to send their kids to.” He is aware, however, that a good percentage of his customers are parents in their early 40s, many of whom came of age during his NCAA heyday. Although he now lives in Los Angeles, he hasn’t missed a day of his camp’s operation since it opened almost two decades ago, and he’s signed countless autographs for starstruck parents, many of whom want to talk about his (and their) March Madness memories. “They’ll tell me about how I beat the spread in their office pool,” he says. “Or sometimes it’s the exact opposite. They’ll tell me how much money they lost because of me or Duke. You get both sides of it.”
Ali Farokhmanesh, the former senior guard for the University of Northern Iowa and Sports Illustrated cover boy, is just starting to realize how far that fame reaches. After his remarkable 3-point shot last year, single-handedly defeating the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, he was passed over by the NBA, eventually getting drafted by Team Massagano in Switzerland. But as he soon learned, the NCAA is not just a U.S. phenomenon. “All of my Swiss teammates,” he says, “they’ll come up to me and say, ‘What were you thinking, shooting that shot against Kansas? You ruined my bracket!’ They want me to make their March Madness picks this year.” He can’t predict how long he’ll last in professional basketball, but he’s well aware that his NCAA fame will probably be his calling card, whatever his profession, for many years to come.
Which just makes somebody like O’Bannon, who’s stuck selling cars in Nevada, a little wistful. “I have people telling me all the time that I should use my fame to make money,” he says. But he doesn’t know how to do that, and he’s not sure that he even wants to. “I have no problem when people do it,” he says. “And I guess subconsciously, I wish I could do it too. But I’m learning how to be happy with who I am now.” Try as he might, though, he finds it hard not to smile whenever a customer asks, “Have you ever played basketball?” He may very well want to focus on the future, but it’s just so easy to bring them back to his office, and wait for them to notice that all-too-familiar jersey on his wall.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 14, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)