Why the Biggest Names in Sports All Want to Be On a Cereal Box

While TV and print ads for virtually every type of product feature celebrities, it would be strange to see a star’s face smiling up at you from a can of beans or a package of eggs. So why is it completely standard to see some of the biggest names in sports on cereal boxes?

Breakfast of Champions – The Wheaties Box Starts the Trend

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In a modern day cereal aisle, its likely in between the colorful cartoon mascots there will be a good number of brands with celebrities on the boxes – but that wasn’t always the case. It all started with Wheaties (or as they used to be known, “Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes.”)

In the 1930s, the breakfast cereal Wheaties forged a partnership with pro baseball that gave them celebrity endorsements like Lou Gehrig that legitimized their new slogan, ‘a breakfast of champions.’

Kate Greenberg, sports marketing consultant for Hill+Knowlton Strategies told eater: “Their slogan and the athletes featured on the boxes really reinforce this idea that their product can propel you toward achievement.”

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Going for Gold – A Cereal Box is the First Step for Olympians Looking to Earn Million Dollar Endorsements

It wasn’t until 1958 that Wheaties moved the athletes to the front of the box, however. Rather that just selecting baseball stars, the brand was looking was looking for all types of sports celebrities and role models – and continue to today.

“We look for athletes who represent their respective sports,” said General Mills marketing manager Dave Oehler told eater, “They’re selected based on their athletic achievements and how they personify being a champion, both on and off the field of competition.”

One obvious source of champion athletes was Olympians. The first two featured on the Wheaties boxes were Bob Richards (two time gold medalist in men’s  pole vaulting) and Caitlyn Jenner (1976 men’s decathlon champion.) The two went on a national fitness tour for Wheaties.

Dozens more Olympians have been featured on cereal boxes – which is extremely beneficial not just for the brands but also for the athletes. Olympians aren’t paid to appear in the Olympics, and often have to raise the funds within their communities or apply for grants to train and go to the games – but with endorsement deals, some can end up extremely successful.

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Olympic superstar Shaun White, who had his own Wheaties box in 2010, makes millions from endorsements like Hewlett-Packard, Oakley, and Red Bull: “I really just take a sponsorship and I go, ‘Okay, does this align with what I’m all about? Does this make sense in the first place? What will people think if I do this?’ And then at the end of the day it’s up to me really turning it into my own thing,” Shaun white told Rebecca Murray for Showbiz Junkies, “I’ve done all sorts of random endorsements to normal endorsements, like industry endorsements you could say like Oakleys. It’s a product that I use on the mountains, the sunglasses I wear around.”

While Wheaties itself doesn’t necessarily pay as much as some of the other major celebrity endorsements (which can offer big-name stars millions for appearing with the product) what it does offer is a chance to raise their international profile – and a shot at those million-dollar deals.

“That opportunity opened many doors for me professionally as I ventured into the entertainment business from the world of sports,” Caitlyn Jenner confirmed to Whitney Filloon of eater.

A Childhood Dream of Icons

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The Wheaties box may help to launch the post-Olympic careers of athletes, but it has also made being on a breakfast cereal box almost a status symbol in the sports world.

In 2019, Serena Williams, already a 4 time Olympic gold medalist with 23 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 Grand Slam doubles titles was on the classic orange Wheaties box. For her, it was fulfilling a childhood dream:

“I am so excited to be on the cover of the next Wheaties box,” Williams said via a press release. “I have dreamt of this since I was a young woman and it’s an honor to join the ranks of some of America’s most decorated athletes. I hope my image on this iconic orange box will inspire the next generation of girls and athletes to dream big.”

The current box features Lebron James and photos of students from the I PROMISE School, where academically at risk students are mentored towards a free college education. James’s mother Gloria shared with the Akron Beacon Journal that as a child, Lebron used to “marvel at the athletes on the box, never imagining that someday he would join them.”

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Sources: General Mills Eater, Sports Management Degree Hub, Forbes, Showbiz Junkies E!, Akron Beacon Journal

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