Big companies usually go after big names as endorsers. Preferably one-name names: Kobe, Peyton, LeBron.
So ... why has Subway brought in Mike Lee?
Make no mistake, Lee is one of the most recognizable boxers in the world, even though he's only had eight pro bouts. But he's now featured prominently in Subway's national advertising campaign alongside the likes of NFL stars Justin Tuck and Ndamukong Suh, baseball stars Ryan Howard and CC Sabathia, and NBA star Blake Griffin. Those are some of the biggest names in the sports universe.
Boxers aren't generally sought to endorse mainstream products these days and Lee is the only boxer in the U.S. currently involved in a national campaign.
Lee, though, came upon his spot in the Subway commercials genuinely: He was a fan of the sandwich chain's turkey sub, and made a habit as a student at Notre Dame of eating one right after getting off the scale at the weigh-in before on-campus intramural fights.
That caught the attention of Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, whose company was looking more for what it calls "famous fans" rather than a spokesman.
"Our approach is, we use fans of Subway who happen to be famous," Pace says.
And though Lee wasn't famous when he was first chosen to be in a spot last year, he was certainly a fan and his potential as a boxer excited Pace.
Lee's father, John, is involved in all aspects of his son's career. When Lee was an amateur, long before winning a light heavyweight championship in the pros was anything more than a dream, John Lee would stop at a Subway near campus and pick up Mike a turkey sub to eat after he weighed in.
"When I first met with the Subway people about possibly working for them," Lee says, "one of the things I reiterated was how I had eaten Subway for so long. I liked the sandwich a lot, and it was so convenient, being so close. And Subway loved the story, because they realized it wasn't just a P.R. move."
Still, it's rare that companies choose boxers to pitch their products in the U.S. Long gone are the days when former heavyweight champions Muhammad Ali and George Foreman pitched everything from bug spray and deodorant to grills and muffler shops.
In the last several years, only the top two fighters in the world, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, have starred in major national ad campaigns. Mayweather pitched AT&T's mobile broadband service and Pacquiao did a commercial for HP's now discontinued tablet.
Pace didn't set out to land a boxer, but he felt Lee's looks, his ease on camera and his devotion to the brand made him a fit.
"The thing about Mike that is very valuable -- though he was by no means famous when we did the deal with him -- is that he is really, really a fan of the Subway brand," Pace says. "That was important to us. Nobody knew who Jared Fogle was before he told his story."
Lee, who graduated from Notre Dame with a 3.8 grade-point average and a degree in finance, has proven to be popular and recently had his deal with Subway renewed.
Lee says the commercials have led to friendly taunting from his buddies. He says he's been in a restaurant in his native Chicago eating a pizza when he's popped on the television screen pitching Subway sandwiches.
"My friends are all very proud of me and they're all interested in, 'What's this guy like? What's that guy like?'" Less says of his more famous commercial co-star athletes. "But they still give me a lot of crap about it. It's almost like we can't go to a bar or a restaurant without seeing it. Everyone teases me about it, but it's a huge honor for me."
Lee, who has never lost a fight amateur or pro, will never stop eating the turkey sub. He was 16-0 as an amateur, making him 24-0 overall, and he has become a huge ticket draw. Notre Dame alumni flock to his fights and he sells more tickets than the vast majority of active boxers -- even well known ones.
But if you watch carefully at his next weigh-in, you'll see his father, John, lurking near the scale, with a turkey sub tucked under his arm.
"It's good, it's good for me and I'm winning when I do it, so you bet I'm going to continue to eat it," he says. "No question about it."
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