He may have retired from professional basketball, but Michael Jordan scored a big win when an Illinois jury awarded him $8.9 million in a publicity rights suit against a local grocery chain.
When Jordan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, Sports Illustrated released a commemorative issue and invited companies to include congratulatory ads. Dominick's accepted with an advertisement featuring Jordan's name and jersey number with an image of a man dunking a basketball and text reading "You are a cut above." At the bottom of the page was a coupon good for $2 off steak.
The basketball legend sued for violations of Illinois's Right of Publicity Act. Over the course of several years of legal wrangling, a federal court judge determined that the advertisement violated Jordan's right of publicity and the jury was tasked simply with awarding damages.
Jordan's team presented evidence that despite his 2003 retirement, he still earns about $100 million per year in endorsement income and that he recently turned down an $80 million offer to hawk headphones. The fair market value of the ad featuring his name and jersey number was roughly $10 million, Jordan told the jury.
Dominick's countered that Jordan was owed just $126,900.
Jurors deliberated about six hours—and requested a calculator—before awarding Jordan $8.9 million.
Although less than requested, the verdict was a slam dunk for Jordan, who released a statement that he was pleased with the award. "No one—whether or not they're a public figure—should have to worry about their identity being used without their permission," he said. "The case was not about the money, as I plan to donate the proceeds to charity. It was about honesty and integrity. I hope this case sends a clear message, both here in the United States and around the world that I will continue to be vigilant about protecting my name and identity. I also hope the size of the monetary reward will deter others from using someone else's identity and believing they will only pay a small penalty."
Why it matters: The verdict in the case against Dominick's—and Jordan's cautionary words in his statement—provide a valuable reminder for advertisers about the importance of obtaining permission when using celebrity images. And the $8.9 million verdict may be only the beginning. Jordan sued another grocery store over a different ad in the commemorative issue that depicted a pair of basketball shoes with the number 23 and text reading "Jewel-Osco salutes #23 on his many accomplishments as we honor a fellow Chicagoan who was 'just around the corner' for so many years." A federal district court initially dismissed the suit on Jewel-Osco's argument that the ad was noncommercial speech entitled to full constitutional protection, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed last year. Trial is set for December.