Kids would ask athletes like Carl Lewis to sign Wheaties boxes. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, kids asked athletes like former U.S. track star Carl Lewis to sign Wheaties boxes. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

It may be “The Breakfast of Champions,” but these days Wheaties ranks a lowly 17th in the breakfast cereal market. Kevin Helliker of the Wall Street Journal joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the plummeting stock of the once iconic cereal brand.

BL: Are there just not enough champions these days? What’s going on?

KH: Well, it would be interesting to know what they’re saying inside the corporate offices at General Mills in Minneapolis. They’re saying very little about it publicly except, “Guess who the new athlete on the cover of the Wheaties box is?” That remains a coveted spot for athletes, but when you’re on that box you’re on fewer and fewer breakfast tables these days.

BL: The reason I’m talking to you, of course, is because the Wheaties brand has been so closely associated with the American sports world since its very beginning. Sports are more popular than ever, so why not Wheaties more popular than ever?

KH: I think today there are so many breakfast cereals out there that have positioned themselves as fitness cereals. Even old brands like Special K. Wheaties has clung to the association with elite athletes and has not really positioned itself as a fitness cereal. I mean this, of course, is subjective, but many analysts and others who follow the breakfast cereal industry seem to think Wheaties isn’t the best tasting of nutritious cereals out there.

BL: The ultimate subjective judgement. 

KH: Myself, I like it. A bowl of Wheaties with some fruit, nothing wrong with that. But within the athletic world it really is a sign of having arrived. And there are some great athletes who never made it on to the Wheaties box, and there are some great athletes who rank right up there with winning, in the case of [tennis star] Chris Evert, winning 18 Grand Slam titles — you know, she has right next to those trophies the enshrined box of Wheaties from 1987, and she’s thrilled about it. Of course, she doesn’t eat it.

BL: I’ve been doing my homework, and I understand that the first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box was Lou Gehrig back in 1934. An estimated 473 athletes followed him. I wonder if there are just too many more lucrative endorsements for sports folks these days so Wheaties is just not in the mix anymore.

KH: I hadn’t really thought about that, but back then what was there? If you were on the Wheaties box you had the one big achievement. And now you can be on ESPN, any one of their [channels], 24 hours a day. There are so many ways for athletes to receive attention and publicity these days. I don’t think many are lying away at nights wondering when they are going to walk down the aisles of Walmart and see themselves on a cereal box.

BL: As you pointed out in your article, other cereal brands have out-marketed Wheaties. Who are they using as endorsers?

KH: You know, a lot of the other cereals that are doing better than Wheaties these days are featuring people like you and me who aren’t famous but who supposedly manage to stay fit by eating this cereal. I think that fitness has kind of overshadowed sports as a selling point at least when it comes to breakfast cereal.

BL: You’ve been doing the research on Wheaties. Where does the brand go from here?

KH: It’s gotten to the point where is it really a brand worth keeping? I know that the Olympic athletes in America would be devastated if that happened, but it’s actually that serious.

BL: Course if that happened, the Chris Everts of the world who were saving the Wheaties boxes upon which they appeared would suddenly have a real investment wouldn’t they?

KH: Well, there is that market. Of course, you go on eBbay you can find anything. There’s a thriving market for Wheaties boxes, and, of course, if you have one for sale and it’s signed by that athlete it’s all the more valuable. I mean once you appear on the Wheaties box, the next time you show up for a game there’s a kid wanting his box signed. It’s become a real fixture in the American sports world, and I guess I’m hoping General Mills comes up with a way to reinvigorate the brand.