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How HIS Name Got on YOUR Sneakers

Today, sports stars like LeBron James make big bucks by selling everything from soda to shoes. Ever wonder how it all started?  

    LeBron James isn’t just a basketball player. He’s a business. Follow him on Instagram and he’ll let you know about his latest movie. He’ll advertise cereal and cars, sneakers and soda. 

    All those ads have made LeBron rich beyond his dreams. And he’s not alone. TV and social media have turned top athletes into celebrities. Many of them make more money off the field than on. 

    When did athletes begin to turn their fame into cash? It all started 100 years ago with a guy named Babe Ruth.

    LeBron James isn’t just an athlete. He’s a business. He’s in ads for cereal and cars, sneakers and soda. 

    Those ads have made LeBron very rich. And he’s not alone. TV and social media have turned top athletes into big stars. Many of them make more money off the field than on.

    When did athletes start turning their fame into cash? It started 100 years ago with a guy named Babe Ruth.

    LeBron James is more than just a basketball player—he’s a business. Follow him on Instagram, and he’ll keep you informed about his latest movie. He’ll advertise cereal and cars, sneakers and soda. 

    All those advertisements have made LeBron incredibly wealthy, and he’s not alone: TV and social media have turned top athletes into celebrities. Many of them make more money off the field than on.

    When did athletes begin turning their fame into cash? It all started a century ago with a guy named Babe Ruth.

The First Superstar

    Until the 1920s, athletes made small amounts of money advertising baseball bats or beer. But it wasn’t easy for an athlete to get famous. Newspapers and radio stations didn’t report on teams in other cities. Most fans knew only their local players. 

    Then came Babe Ruth. He was a new kind of baseball player. No one had ever seen a batter hit the ball so hard and so far. 

    But Ruth was also different because he was the first athlete to have an agent—someone to handle his business affairs. In 1921, Ruth hired a guy named Christy Walsh. He set up radio interviews. He got reporters to fill newspapers with stories about Ruth’s every move. 

    All that hard work paid off. Before long, Ruth was the most photographed person in the world. Everywhere he went, he was mobbed by fans.

    Until the 1920s, athletes could make a little money advertising baseball bats or beer. But it was hard for an athlete to get famous. Newspapers and radio stations didn’t report on teams in other cities. Most fans knew only their local players.

    Then came Babe Ruth. He was a new kind of baseball player. No one had ever seen a batter hit the ball so hard and so far.

    Ruth was also the first athlete to have an agent. That’s someone who handles your business affairs. In 1921, Ruth hired a guy named Christy Walsh. Walsh set up radio interviews. He got reporters to write stories about Ruth.

    Ruth became the most photographed person in the world. He had fans everywhere.

    Until the 1920s, athletes earned small amounts of money advertising baseball bats or beer. But it wasn’t easy for an athlete to become famous. Newspapers and radio stations didn’t report on teams in other cities, so most fans knew only their local players.

    Then came Babe Ruth. He was a new kind of baseball player. No one had ever seen a batter hit the ball so hard and so far.

    But Ruth was also unusual because he was the first athlete to have an agent—someone to handle his business affairs. In 1921, Ruth hired a guy named Christy Walsh. Walsh set up radio interviews and got reporters to fill newspapers with stories about Ruth’s every move.

    All that hard work paid off. Before long, Ruth was the most photographed person on the planet. Everywhere he went, he was mobbed by fans.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images (Babe Ruth); Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images (Ads)

Old-Time Ads
Baseball star Babe Ruth sold everything from underwear to chewing gum.

The Salesman

    Walsh wasted no time making money from Ruth’s fame. He got Ruth’s name on more than 100 products. 

    Ruth advertised candy bars and soda. He helped sell cigars and chewing tobacco. He even had his own line of underwear! 

    Ruth was still very popular when he died in 1948. At the time, Americans were just discovering television. Before long, millions of people would be watching games and ads in their own homes. 

    Now social media has made sports stars even more famous—and richer. In 2020, LeBron made $60 million—not including his basketball salary. If Ruth were still around, that would probably make him happy. 

    Walsh had made Ruth famous. Next, he made him rich. He got Ruth’s name on more than 100 products.

    Ruth advertised candy bars and soda. He helped sell cigars and chewing tobacco. He even had his own line of underwear!

    Ruth was still famous when he died in 1948. At that time, Americans were just discovering TV. Before long, millions of people would be watching games and ads in their own homes.

    Now social media has made sports stars even more famous. They’re richer too. Last year, LeBron made $60 million—not including his basketball salary. If Ruth were still around, he would probably like that. 

    Walsh wasted no time making money from Ruth’s fame. He got Ruth’s name on more than 100 products.

    Ruth advertised candy bars, soda, cigars, and chewing tobacco. He even had his own line of underwear!

    Ruth was still very popular when he died in 1948. At the time, Americans were just discovering television. Before long, millions of people would be watching games and ads in their own homes.

    Today, social media has made sports stars even more famous—and wealthier. In 2020, LeBron made $60 million—not including his basketball salary. If Ruth were still around, he’d probably find that news very satisfying. 

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