By Michael LeCompte
Athletes make natural advertising pitchmen. They are watched by a large swath of the population on a regular basis and everyone dreams of doing what they do on the field. While we’re probably never going to make it into the game an athlete endorsing any given product does somehow make them seem just a little bit more human, more like us. Therefore, if we consume whatever product they’re pitching, we too, can be like them in some small way.
Today multi-million dollar athlete endorsement deals are commonplace. We can’t make it through an NFL game without Peyton Manning pitching us pizza, Buicks, insurance, and Sony TV’s (which actually might just cover all of our needs as humans and sports fans).
However, the first million dollar athlete endorsement deal came long before Manning and even decades before Michael Jordan turned his marketing opportunities into a now billion dollar empire. Surprisingly it did not come from one of the big three sports of football, baseball, or basketball either. Rather it came from the lanes, from the sport of…bowling!
Today bowling is a casual sport undertaken with friends and in beer leagues, but from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, bowling was a big-time sport and no one in that era was more dominant than Don Carter.
Born in St. Louis in 1926 Carter grew up around bowling and worked as a pinsetter from an early age. In high school he was a baseball star and initially harbored professional aspirations in that sport.
In 1944 he enlisted in the Navy and served two years as a radar man in the South Pacific.
In 1946 he signed a $150 a month minor league baseball contract with the Philadelphia Athletics. He spent one year playing for North Carolina in the Tobacco State League, where he hit .302, but went just 3-7 with a 4.19 ERA as a pitcher.
After returning to St. Louis he worked as an alley man, janitor, and bartender at his local bowling alley and continued to bowl every chance he got. In 1951 he earned a spot on the Pfeiffer Beer team in Detroit and began his professional career.
Carter went on to become a 6 time Bowler of the Year and a 10 time All-Star who, by the 1950’s had come to be known as “Mr. Bowling.”
In 1958 he was a founding member of the Professional Bowler’s Association (PBA) and served as the organization’s first president. By the early 1960’s with tournament winnings and endorsement deals Carter was making over $100,000 a year.
In 1964 he signed the first million dollar endorsement deal in sports history with the Ebonite Bowling Company.
Ebonite manufactured the “Don Carter Gyro-Balanced Ball,” still one of the best-selling bowling balls ever.
Although a knee injury forced Carter to retire from competitive bowling in 1972 he continued to set the precedent for athlete endorsements by pitching everything from bowling supplies to Wonder Bread and Miller Lite.
Don Carter passed away in 2012.