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The trial over the use of Michael Jordan’s name and famous number “23” by the supermarket chain Dominick’s in an ad six years ago began in earnest Wednesday. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

Michael Jordan trial begins: ‘If you want the Hope Diamond . . . buy the Hope Diamond’

SHARE Michael Jordan trial begins: ‘If you want the Hope Diamond . . . buy the Hope Diamond’
SHARE Michael Jordan trial begins: ‘If you want the Hope Diamond . . . buy the Hope Diamond’

Turns out it’s pretty good to be like Mike.

And a jury found out just how good it is at Chicago’s federal courthouse, where testimony Wednesday lifted the veil on the lucrative business of being Michael Jordan.

Comparing the Chicago Bulls great to the Hope Diamond, attorney Frederick Sperling revealed eye-popping sums companies have paid Jordan over the years for the use of his “most valuable asset” — his identity.

And Jordan sat nonchalantly in U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey’s courtroom as Sperling told jurors the fair-market value of Jordan’s identity remains “generally very much in excess” of $10 million long after Jordan retired from playing.

Sperling said Jordan took in more than $100 million for the use of his identity in 2014 alone. Then Sperling laid out $580 million in income collected by Jordan for his various business deals between 2000 and 2012. They included $480.7 million from Nike, $18 million from Gatorade, $14.6 million from Hanes and $14 million from Upper Deck.

“If you want the Hope Diamond, you have to buy the Hope Diamond,” Sperling said.

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That phrase summed up Jordan’s business strategy in the early days of his career, Sperling said. Jordan’s handlers decided any company interested in a piece of his brand would have to pay up rather than simply chip off a piece of the “diamond.”

Jordan’s lawyers contend the supermarket chain Dominick’s infringed on his brand when it used his name without permission in a 2009 magazine ad. They’ve taken a lawsuit against the grocer to trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Dominick’s lawyer Steven Mandell told jurors in his opening statement they must decide how much the now-defunct grocer owes Jordan based on “comparable uses” of his identity.

The ad at issue ran in a limited-edition issue of Sports Illustrated magazine published in 2009 to commemorate Jordan’s induction into basketball’s Hall of Fame. It used Jordan’s name, his famous number “23,” and what appeared to be a replica of his famous “Jump Man” silhouette logo. It also included a $2 off coupon for a Rancher’s Reserve steak.

Mandell said licensing deals are affected by variables like exposure, exclusivity and length of time. He said Jordan once let the toy company Mattel use his name and photo in a trivia game for as little as $5,000, though Sperling said the company was allowed to use Jordan’s name only as a trivia answer.

Bottom line, Mandell said there is one guiding principle: “The more you use, the greater the value, the more expensive it is.”

But longtime Jordan manager Estee Portnoy testified she was “shocked” when she first saw the ad that she said “compares him to a piece of steak” and “basically stole his name.”

“Everything about the ad bothered me,” Portnoy said.

She said Jordan’s handlers “very carefully manage Michael and work with him on his brand.” Partnership deals are typically worth $10 million or above, she said, though that’s not always in cash.

In one light-hearted moment, Portnoy told jurors Jordan hasn’t played professional basketball since 1998 — “we don’t count the Wizards years,” she said, referring to Jordan’s brief stint with the Washington Wizards.

Regardless, she said Jordan’s team had begun “looking for ways to remind people that Michael had played.” She described a deal with 2K Sports Inc. to include Jordan in a series of video games that would have “Michael come alive to today’s kids.”

The ultimate deal included a $2.5 million payment to Jordan and $2.1 million in benefits to his professional basketball team in Charlotte.

Portnoy also said she “loved” a proposal from SiriusXM Radio to include scenes of Jordan in action along with Elvis and comedian Richard Pryor in a commercial. The final deal included a $500,000 payment to Jordan and his exposure in $25 million worth of ads.

A Sirius representative initially offered $350,000, Portnoy said. She counter-offered that she couldn’t take the deal to Jordan for less than $500,000. However, it turned out that Portnoy had already taken the offer to Jordan, who said, “Let’s do it.”

The unsuspecting Sirius representative agreed to the extra $150,000 in five minutes.

“I was trying to do my job,” Portnoy told the jury.

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