Former Chicago Bull Michael Jordan was in a federal courtroom Tuesday for the start of a civil trial that will scrutinize the market value of the basketball star's brand and look at whether a grocery-store chain diluted that value by running a steak-coupon advertisement that invoked Jordan's name without permission.
The trial in the city where Jordan won six NBA championships stems from a lawsuit he filed against the now-defunct Dominick's Finer Foods for the 2009 ad in Sports Illustrated that congratulated him on his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Text above a $2 coupon and photograph of a steak read, "Michael Jordan ... You are a cut above."
Jordan, 52, entered through the front doors of the courthouse Tuesday after Judge John Blakey denied his request to use a security tunnel. A relaxed-looking Jordan walked through a metal detector as dozens of reporters and passers-by looked on, pulling an ID from his wallet and showing it to security.
Opening statements were scheduled for Wednesday. Jury selection was completed Tuesday, with lawyers for Dominick's questioning would-be jurors about whether Jordan's stardom would tilt their findings in his favor.
When a dozen prospective panelists were asked to raise their hands if any considered Jordan "an idol or personal hero," none of them did. But the judge later dismissed a man who did say he idolized Jordan. When a lawyer noted the man wasn't wearing Nike-brand Jordan shoes, Blakey said maybe they should scrutinize if he used another product Jordan endorses.
"We should check if he was wearing Hanes (underwear)," the judge joked.
Jordan has meticulously guarded his image and the suit was an attempt to thwart companies that employ praise to slip references to him in an ad. He's expected to testify about why he so carefully controls his brand.
Questions are also expected to arise about Jordan's lucrative endorsement deals with multiple companies, including Nike, as the sides seek to establish the value of his image.
A separate judge previously ruled that Dominick's did, in fact, use Jordan's identity without permission, so the unresolved issue is damages. Jurors could decide to award Jordan millions of dollars or, if they decide no notable damage was done to his image, nothing at all.
Jordan also sued the supermarket group Jewel-Osco for a similar ad congratulating him on his Hall of Fame induction. A lower court judge ruled in 2012 that the congratulatory message was constitutionally protected free speech and not a commercial, though an appellate court overturned that finding. That case is scheduled for trial in Chicago later this year.