In the world of sports, there are numerous, detailed metrics to determine success. In professional basketball, for instance, athletes are judged on championships, Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, scoring titles, Olympic medals, longevity in the league, and seemingly countless other personal achievements. With so many metrics and positions, it’s nearly impossible to objectively compare players within the same sport. Some circles, for example, energetically argue over the supremacy of NBA greats, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Kobe fans cite his five NBA championships and one MVP award, while LeBron fans cite two NBA championships and four MVP awards. If comparing athletes within a sport is difficult and fruitless, then evaluating and comparing athletes among the various sports is next to impossible. So, as statisticians and sports fanatics tirelessly search for the perfect formula to measure greatness, we’d all do well to remember that there’s only one tried-and-true way to judge sports achievement: the Wheaties box. Beginning in 1934, prominent athletes have graced the panels of the Wheaties box, making it the “Breakfast of Champions.” For even the greatest athletes, winning championships, medals, and other athletic honors does not come easily; these challenges, however, should pale in comparison to the task of convincing millions of people that Wheaties – such a lackluster, bland cereal – is a tasty way to enjoy the most important meal of the day.
Some of the athletes featured on the Wheaties box had only fleeting moments on the orange carpet, while others proudly stood the test of time and became regular fixtures in our kitchen pantries. Regardless, can it be questioned that Wheaties’ operational longevity over the last ninety years is largely due to its brilliant partnership with the world of sports? And can it be questioned that, despite the brand’s recent struggles, gracing the Wheaties box is a coveted honor for even the most outstanding athletes? Below is a list of the five athletes with the most meaningful tenures with the all-mighty Wheaties.
5. Tiger Woods: 14 Box Appearances
In 1997, Tiger Woods landed in the history books. Entering the PGA tour as a professional for the first time, Tiger dominated the Masters in convincing and dramatic fashion. Crushing the previous Masters’ record by twelve fewer strokes, Tiger became the youngest golfer to win the prestigious competition. That same year, Tiger soared in the world rankings, notching the number-one spot for the first time. What’s more, Tiger became the first African American golfer to win a major. It’s no surprise, then, that less than a year after Tiger’s historic Masters’ victory, Wheaties and Tiger began what would be an eleven-year partnership. Tiger appeared on the Wheaties cover fourteen times – a feat only surpassed by one person. Tiger’s apparently regular spot on the orange box was well deserved, as he has accumulated 14 major championships.
4. Walter Payton: First NFL Player on the Box
In 1987, Walter Payton became the fifth celebrity athlete and the first NFL player to grace the Wheaties cover. When considering that the NFL has long been the most lucrative sports league in the world and that, according to Gallup polling, football surpassed baseball as America’s most popular sport in 1972, the significance of Walter Payton’s endorsement of Wheaties becomes intensely clear. By the time Payton took over the pre-packaged cereal industry, Payton had taken control of the NFL record books. When Payton retired in 1987, he had records in total rushing yards, attempts, combined yards, 100-yard rushing games, and 1,000-yard rushing seasons. While his athletic achievements and Wheaties’ endorsement helped make Payton a well-known national figure, his charitable contributions off the field further enhanced his favorable image. He formed the Halas Payton Foundation and Walter Payton Foundation to assist less-fortunate youth in Illinois.
3. Mary Lou Retton: First Female on the Cover
Twenty-six years after Wheaties began featuring athletes on its cover, Mary Lou Retton became the first female athlete to accomplish such a feat. Though not the first female athlete to stand proud on a Wheaties panel, Retton was Wheaties’ first cover girl. Retton captivated the world audience in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she became the first woman outside of Eastern Europe, and consequently the first American woman, to win the All Around gymnastics competition. During the event, Retton scored perfect 10s in her awe-inspiring floor routine and final vaults. Such a stellar performance awarded her a gold medal and a trip to the orange box. Hoisting four additional medals, Retton won more medals than any other athlete the 1984 Olympics. Outside the Olympics, Retton accumulated three American Cup Titles, among other awards, before deciding to retire from gymnastics in 1985.
2. Bob Richards: First Spokesperson
Before Walter Payton and Mary Lou Retton found their way to the local cereal aisle, two-time gold medalist Bob Richards pole-vaulted onto the Wheaties cover. Richards not only became the first athlete featured on the cover of Wheaties, but he was also chosen to help Wheaties re-create a broken image. In the 1950s, after a temporary disassociation with sports, Wheaties’ influence and identity waned. Sales reportedly dropped 10% in one year. Wheaties was determined to reassert itself as the Breakfast of Champions. Choosing from over 500 candidates, the cereal company asked Richards to become their first spokesperson – a position he held from 1958 – 1970. Richards’ influence extended beyond a cereal-box cover. As spokesman, Richards traveled the country to speak with youth about healthy living and sportsmanship.
1. Michael Jordan: 18 Box Appearances
In 1988, Michael Jordan became the seventh athlete to be featured on the Wheaties cover. Jordan and the cereal solidified what would be a long, prosperous partnership, which spanned eleven years. Throughout those eleven years, Jordan was featured eighteen different times on the Wheaties cover – four more than any other athlete (Tiger Woods appeared on the cover fourteen times). Beyond his eighteen cover appearances, Jordan’s image was lucratively displayed on Wheaties’ posters, collector cards, and television ads. The timing of Wheaties’ partnership with Jordan was nothing short of fortuitous. In 1987, one year prior to the endorsement deal, Jordan was first selected to the All-NBA First Team, an honor given to the best players at their positions. One year later, Jordan won his first of five MVP awards (and his first All-Star MVP award). Jordan would go on to win six NBA championships and become one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. As his career progressed, Jordan became an icon; his achievements and charm made him the perfect candidate for endorsement deals. Shortly after agreeing to contract terms with Jordan, Wheaties’ product manager, Jim Nuckols, stated: “Michael Jordan is a man of real character and integrity, which is fitting for the positive image the product tries to have.” In this 1989 ad, Wheaties reiterated this same message, suggesting that Jordan was the quintessential spokesperson.
Jordan’s brand and omnipresent image certainly helped the flakey cereal. Just one year after Jordan’s 1993 retirement, Wheaties’ quarterly sales report indicated a 5.7% decline in retail unit sales. Wheaties and Jordan were seemingly the perfect union of sport and consumer product.