New York, NY, Dec. 27 (AP by Dunstan Prial)--As Wall Street's narrow canyons widen to include Main Street, sports stars who usually tout sneakers and soft drinks have become pitchmen for the bankers and brokers of high finance.
Ten years ago, the commanding voice of the distinguished actor John Houseman informed TV viewers that the brokerage firm Smith Barney earned money ``the old-fashioned way _ they earn it.''
The grainy, somber tone of the commercials helped perpetuate the almost mystical aura that until recently has hovered over Wall Street.
Now, discount broker Charles Schwab is running tongue-in-cheek ads that portray professional athletes _ including tennis player Anna Kournikova, NFL star Shannon Sharpe and NBA center Dikembe Motumbo _ as savvy investors.
Two things have helped cut the fog for the average American investor _ the proliferation of mutual funds, which have given millions of Americans a stake in the stock market; and the explosive growth in online trading, which has opened unprecedented access to the market.
``What they're doing is focusing on the everyday guy like me,'' said David Romishar, a 35-year-old dentist in Merchantville, N.J. ``They're utilizing these athletes to say, 'Hey, you've seen me play ball, but I also invest just like you do.'''
Other sports celebrities to appear in brokerage firm commercials are Olympic skier Picabo Street and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
``I think what they're doing is appealing to the broadest possible market. They want to reach out to the individual investor and get that person involved,'' added Bill McIntyre, a retired investor from Camp Hill, Pa.
Even the staid New York Stock Exchange has gotten into the act, touting itself in a quirky TV ad that features former quarterback Terry Bradshaw and a slew of current star athletes. The purpose of the ad is to remind viewers and investors of the big sports companies whose stocks trade on the Big Board.
``Main Street and Wall Street are one in the same now,'' said Bob Zito, a NYSE spokesman. ``Eighty million Americans own stock directly now and those investors recognize those athletes.''
Nearly all of the investment-related commercials that star well-known athletes employ an ironic theme that plays against the stereotype of the athlete as oblivious to finance. Instead, Sharpe, a tight end with the Denver Broncos, explains price-earnings ratios to a group of football players during the Schwab commercial.
``In these commercials, these athletes are saying, 'I'm investing my money, so should you.' And there's an identity factor because Americans feel that athletes are real,'' sports columnist Frank DeFord said.
DeFord said Wall Street was late in making the connection between athletes and investors.
``It's a perfectly logical progression,'' he said. ``The stock market is more proletarian now. Everyone is into stocks and most of those same people are sports fans. There's not a whole lot of difference between selling stocks and selling Nike or Gatorade.''
Not surprisingly, the brokerage firms pioneering online trading first began using athletes in their commercials.
``Wall Street firms are traditionally very conservative institutions and they've maintained a very narrow viewpoint in the use of professional athletes,'' sports agent Leigh Steinberg said.
Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press