NEW YORK – It's been nearly three decades since Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring, and the public still can't get enough of the self-described greatest.
A number of products bearing his image and iconic signature have come on the market the past couple of years, no surprise considering the former heavyweight champion, philanthropist and cultural icon has become even more beloved in retirement. His magnetic personality, natural charisma and courageous battle with Parkinson's disease have only served to raise his profile.
Whether it's the special-edition gloves that were launched last year by equipment-maker Everlast, or the limited run of caps by New Era that reached stores Friday, Ali is still proving to be a strong commodity even in a downtrodden economy.
"Although he's still a living person, out there doing his thing, his philanthropic work and all that, the brand side is an evergreen brand," said Kelly Hill, the director of licensing for Muhammad Ali Enterprises. "Our mission now is to protect and perpetuate his legacy."
Marketing Evaluations' annual sports Q ratings, which measures various aspects of athlete and celebrity marketability, recently revealed that Ali is still the No. 1 athlete in terms of "familiarity," ahead of current stars such as LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning.
The survey of more than 2,000 people ages 12 to 64 showed Ali was the most familiar athlete in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, and even resonated well with teens, trailing only Tiger Woods in an age group that was born long after he last stepped foot in the ring.
"The greatest is still kind of the greatest," said Marketing Evaluations vice president Henry Schafer. "He's pretty much universally known — 94 percent of sports fans today know who he is. Michael Jordan is at 89, and Tiger Woods is at 93, even with all his stuff that went on.
"Even with today's population, many of whom never saw him box, he stands the test of time."
Muhammad Ali Enterprises was formed several years ago to license Ali products and help capitalize on his overwhelming popularity. Just like professional sports leagues and teams have entire staffs to clear companies pitching everything from coasters to blankets, MAE serves to watch over Ali's image and likeness, ensuring that only certain products are connected to him.
The business machine behind Ali is impressive considering he was famous during his career for lending his name to just about anything. He often signed deals with companies that never made good on their promises, paying him far less than he was owed, if anything at all.
There are currently between 50 and 60 officially licensed Ali products, Hill said, from the well-known Everlast gloves and New Era hats to more obscure posters and prints.
"Just in general, we've been building up our merchandising and licensing program," Hill said, "and our mission is to partner with companies that are outstanding in their field."
The most recent product to hit the market is a limited-edition cap that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Ali's victory at the Summer Olympics. Designed by New Era with input from Ali, the white leather hat features red, white and blue details that mimic his Team USA uniform from the 1960 Rome Olympics, and comes in a decorative display box with gold silk lining.
There are only 144 hats available, and they don't come cheap. The retail price is $125 with a portion of the proceeds going to the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
"This is one of the greatest athletes of all time, and we wanted to do something special," said Dana Marciniak from New Era. "We set out and did some designs for him, and he picked the white leather cap with the ribbons that kind of matched his uniform."
The hats are part of New Era's "Capture the Flag" collection, which is designed to salute pioneers in all walks of life. Ali joins a roster that includes film director Spike Lee and the rapper Fabolous, whose own special-edition cap includes a diamond and goes for $250.
"Normally the athlete designs the hat, but in this case we did a whole bunch of designs," Marciniak said. "We took inspiration from everywhere. This is probably the most anticipated design we've done. At the end of the day, this is Muhammad Ali, and that's pretty awesome."
Many of the "Capture the Flag" hats appeal to a younger demographic, especially the hip-hop culture of teens and 20-somethings — which at first glance would seem like a disconnect.
After all, Ali rarely makes public appearances anymore.
But this is also the man whose defiant stance on the war in Vietnam was in line with beliefs of many young people in the late 1960s and early '70s. The truth is, he's always connected with the youth, and the people shaping his image these days understand that.
His redesigned website, for example, includes a Twitter feed and links to social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. There are YouTube videos and an iPhone application, all melded alongside Ali's history and engaging back story, videos of his greatest moments and, of course, an online store that sells everything from autographed memorabilia to T-shirts and figurines.
More than anything else, that may underscore the fact that Ali is still big business.
"We take great pains that when we put a product out, it is befitting of having his name and image on it," Hill said. "Like I said, the brand is an evergreen brand that I honestly believe will stand the test of time, and hopefully we'll promote his legacy after we're all gone."