“The fact that they’ve tweaked their menu over the last several years to become more health-conscious enables them to maintain that ubiquity,” Carter says. “It would have been a little bit more of a challenge for McDonald’s to remain as relevant, given the great concern about childhood obesity, without making changes. That’s allowed that connection to sports to remain totally relevant.”
Among sports sponsorships and marketing programs, the name of the company and the honor of being on the team are inseparable in a way that few similar linkages can attain. NASCAR’s Winston Cup, now the Sprint Cup, achieved that status, while the college football bowl games that have ditched traditional names aspire to it: Atlanta’s Peach Bowl is now the Chick-fil-A Bowl, an attempt to build the kind of brand recognition McDonald’s gets from basketball.
“How long have they had that relationship? It’s been years,” says David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “The Heisman Trophy has been presented by how many people—Nissan, Aflac, whoever—over the years? The continuity and the relevance add to McDonald’s being ingrained as part of the nomenclature.”
McDonald’s involvement with high-school athletics fits with the company’s larger vision. Golin, the PR pioneer, coined the term “trust bank” to describe programs designed to generate goodwill for McDonald’s. McDonald’s once sponsored an All-American marching band that performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses. Golin says that program was abandoned when it became too logistically complicated. The basketball program proved far simpler—and more effective.
“It became such a status symbol for young people in athletics. We certainly never envisioned it would catch on that well,” Golin says. “It’s become such an iconic program, very good for the company associated with it.”
McDonald’s success in basketball has spawned other marketing programs targeting high-school athletes. In 1985, Gatorade began honoring a male and female high-school athlete in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as sport-specific winners in 12 sports. The program names national winners in each sport, as well as two national athletes of the year.
In 1994, Wendy’s and the foundation that awards the Heisman Trophy collaborated to form the High School Heisman program, which honors excellence in athletics, academics, and community service. This year, a male and female winner were chosen among 10 finalists out of more than 48,000 applicants.
As truly exceptional high-school players, McDonald’s All-Americans can change the course of a college basketball program—or a career. Since the first team was named, a McDonald’s All-American has been on the roster of all but one men’s NCAA championship team.
In 35 years, 495 McDonald’s All-Americans have gone on to the NBA, and this year, McDonald’s will honor 35 all-time All-Americans, in honor of the game’s 35th anniversary. The event spans generations: Doc Rivers, the coach of the Boston Celtics, was a McDonald’s All-American in 1980. Last spring, his son Austin became the second generation of the family to receive the honor.
“It’s awesome to meet other players that are in the same position, guys who have all done something great, no matter where they’re from, and we all have a certain amount of respect for each other,” says Austin Rivers, who is from Winter Park, Florida. “It’s neat, because we all want to play against each other. We never talk about it, but in the back of our minds, we all want to prove we’re better than one another.”
The vast majority choose to attend some of the biggest programs in men’s college basketball: Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and so on. It’s the kind of talent that keeps those programs on top. Ray McCallum, the basketball coach at the University of Detroit, normally doesn’t have a chance at that kind of player. Two years ago, he found one under his own roof.
His son, Ray Michael McCallum, was named a McDonald’s All-American and attracted national attention. In the end, he chose to stay at home and play for his father. Ticket sales and sponsorships both increased after Ray Michael made his decision, as did the interest of television networks.
“With his name recognition, he’s recognized as a marquee player,” the elder McCallum says. “The program, the first year we came here, had maybe three or four games on TV. Now, we’re looking at 15.”
They’re Lovin’ It
The McDonald’s All-American alumni list includes the NBA’s biggest stars and more than 30 men’s NCAA Championship players. Here is just a sample.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson, 1977
Isiah Thomas, 1979
Michael Jordan, 1981
Patrick Ewing, 1981
Shaquille O’Neal, 1989
Kevin Garnett, 1995
Kobe Bryant, 1996
LeBron James, 2003
Dwight Howard, 2004
While the power of a McDonald’s All-American is remaking that program, a McDonald’s All-American played a big role in the progression of Mark Fox’s coaching career. Now the head coach at the University of Georgia, the 43-year-old Fox was already winning at Nevada when he fought off Ohio State to keep Luke Babbitt, a McDonald’s All-American from Reno, at home. Babbitt now plays for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
One year later, Fox’s proven ability to recruit McDonald’s All-Americans helped him land the job at Georgia. During his second season there, Fox recruited another McDonald’s All-American, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the first McDonald’s All-American to play at Georgia in 12 years.
“For any coach, as you look at jobs, people are going to ask whether you can recruit or not,” Fox says. “The best way to answer that question is to land a McDonald’s All-American. Those guys are hard to get, especially at a school of Nevada’s size. That helps as schools look at you.”
Within the game of basketball, the McDonald’s All-American Games couldn’t be more relevant. For an 18-year-old basketball player, there is no higher badge of honor.
“It’s crazy,” says Austin Rivers, a freshman at Duke. “You look at the list, you have people like Magic Johnson, people like Derrick Rose, and LeBron [James]. Pretty much every NBA All-Star has most likely been in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Any time you get to be a part of something like that, it’s amazing.”