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  • For the last 35 years, McDonald’s has had a hand in choosing the biggest basketball stars in the country. 

    As announcer Eric Collins introduced Michigan State’s players during a basketball broadcast on the Big Ten Network in December, he paused to give special mention to Branden Dawson, a freshman from Gary, Indiana: “Dawson, the McDonald’s All-American.” It had very little to do with Big Macs and everything to do with big-time basketball.

    For McDonald’s, which attached its name to the country’s most prestigious high-school all-star game more than three decades ago, such mentions have become commonplace. The term has become ubiquitous in the basketball world, shorthand for the best high-school players in the country and the source of untold visibility in the sports world for the equally ubiquitous restaurant company.

    Being selected for the McDonald’s All-American Games—a women’s game was added 10 years ago—is the highest honor for high-school basketball players. There are other All-America teams, but no other nationally televised all-star game. Players yearn for the recognition, college coaches covet those players, and fans eagerly track their college choices.

    “It’s an indication that a kid has achieved success at the scholastic level,” says ESPN commentator Dick Vitale. “It doesn’t guarantee success at the collegiate level. But it’s very prestigious, and we refer to kids as a McDonald’s All-American, or he won the McDonald’s Slam Dunk contest. It’s very prestigious, and many of these kids become successful.”

    McDonald’s, meanwhile, benefits from having its name inexorably linked with the top basketball talent in the country, increasing its visibility with the pre-teen and teen demographics, as well as with sports fans in general. Starting with the first class in 1977, which included future Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson, McDonald’s has injected its name into the game of basketball worldwide in a very real way.

    For McDonald’s, it’s about more than marketing. The company isn’t a sponsor of the game; it owns it. The game has been held all over the country, from San Diego to New York, from Colorado Springs to Coral Gables. When this spring’s event is held in Chicago for the second straight year, it will be the first time the game has been held in the same location twice.

    “The primary beneficiary, without question, is the Ronald McDonald House Charities,” says Douglas Freeland, the director of the McDonald’s All-American Games and a McDonald’s marketing executive. “From the very beginning, the proceeds from the game have benefited Ronald McDonald House to help families that are in need. McDonald’s has a long tradition of involvement with sports, whether it’s the Olympic sponsorships or professional sports. The McDonald’s All-American Games are a very important asset.”

    What became a national program began locally, in the early 1970s, as a showcase for Washington, D.C., and Baltimore’s top high-school players. In 1977, the organizer of the game, a promoter named Bob Geoghan, came to McDonald’s with the idea of pitting a local all-star team against some of the country’s best college-bound players.

    Looking back, Al Golin never could have imagined the impact McDonald’s association with the game would have. Golin, the founder of PR giant GolinHarris, has worked with McDonald’s since 1957. He loved the potential exposure in each player’s individual market when he was selected and the way it fit with the larger goals McDonald’s set for community involvement.

    “First of all, McDonald’s is always interested in young people, saluting young people,” Golin says. “It involved a lot of inner-city young people and minority people, which is always a consideration for McDonald’s. More than rewarding people for their basketball skills, it was about trying to teach a little about life and life after basketball. There’s always a banquet, with a sports figure, and the message is that there’s life after basketball, and you have to prepare for it. The message was always the key one for McDonald’s.”

    After the first game was a success, McDonald’s decided to take the program to the national level. In 1978, two teams of all-stars from across the country played each other in Philadelphia. In the years since, the game, and its accompanying slam-dunk and long-range shooting contests, has been held all over the country, in massive NBA arenas and historic college gyms alike.

    The 2010 No. 1 high school prospect Harrison Barnes volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House of Central Ohio as an All-American.

    Since 1989, the game has been carried on national television. This month it airs on ESPN, which also carried the live announcement of this year’s team in February. The money raised each year goes to the Ronald McDonald House in the host city, and players visit hospital patients and their families as part of the festivities.

    “The McDonald’s All-American Game is unique in that it is a celebration of young people that shows them the value of giving back,” Freeland says. “We take all the players to the Ronald McDonald House on game week. It’s quite an experience with these families. It reinforces with these players, who are very gifted, the value of giving back.”

    Because the McDonald’s All-American Games feature high-school athletes, the company’s involvement has raised concerns from Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that McDonald’s is using athletics to promote “generally unhealthy food.”

    Freeland says such criticisms are “completely misinformed,” citing the game’s charitable purpose and community-service endeavors.

    “We don’t need to use the McDonald’s All-American Games to soft-sell anything,” Freeland says. “Any resources devoted from a marketing or PR standpoint to the McDonald’s All-American Games are in terms of driving ticket sales, driving viewership of the game on TV, or reinforcing the linkage to Ronald McDonald House Charities.”

    From a more practical standpoint, Carter, the USC sports business professor, says McDonald’s recent changes to create more healthy menu choices were beneficial if the company was going to continue to remain closely associated with basketball.