By Darren Rovell, CNBC Sports Business Reporter NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- After nearly a nine-decade run, the "Breakfast of Champions" is on the ropes. Sales of Wheaties are down double digits for another year and the tailspin shows no signs of stopping. A brand that, in the 1960s, accounted for 6.5 percent of all of the cereal sold in the United States, now only has slightly more than 0.5% of the market. "Wheaties had a clear brand identity," said Lloyd Moritz, who, as editor of The Breakfast Bowl, a blog dedicated solely to cereal, just might be the nation's foremost expert on the topic. "The problem was they rested on their laurels."
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Executives with General Mills declined to comment on this story. Wheaties was invented in 1922 by a health clinician in Minnesota, who accidentally spilled a wheat mix on a stove. When the product hit retail, it was sold by General Mills predecessor Washburn Crosby as Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. The name was soon changed to Wheaties. Wheaties was one of the first brands that made its name on sports marketing. In 1934, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig was the first to appear on a Wheaties box. Over the years, standout athletes and champions in every sport had their image on a box, including Michael Jordan, who was featured on a record 18 different boxes throughout his career. Before Nike ( NKE) or Gatorade ( PEP) claimed their place as "performance-enhancers," professional athletes convinced impressionable young children that if they want to make it big the message was "Better Eat Your Wheaties." Since making a Wheaties box was seen by so many as the pinnacle honor in sports marketing, athletes didn't hesitate when the brand only offered a couple thousand dollars to be on a box. That was until recent times, when that kind of money became more laughable and Wheaties started losing its cache. In 2002, half-pipe Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass was asked by a Baltimore Sun reporter if his performance at the 2002 Olympics would be good enough to land him on the Wheaties box. "I don't think I've ever eaten Wheaties in my whole life," the 19-year-old Kass said at the time. "If I was on something like that, I'd probably want it to be like Count Chocula or something cool." Moritz admits that the cereal space is as much about the packaging as the content, so the fact that athletes and agents don't see Wheaties as appealing anymore can't be ignored. "They used to have some really good stars on their boxes," Moritz said. "We haven't seen the same high-profile guys in recent years." Instead of fresh blood, marketers for Wheaties recently elected to go back to the past. The three newest athletes on Wheaties boxes are actually old ones: Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton and Muhammad Ali.
Betting on collectors boosting sales is a tough bet, as more people seem to be saying they're less excited about what's actually in the box. In a Twitter poll, with 258 of my followers as respondents, only 10.1% said they had eaten Wheaties this year. The largest percentage of people (40.7%) admitted they hadn't eaten the cereal in at least 10 years, with more than 1 out of every four (26.7%) saying that they never even had a spoon of Wheaties. "Wheaties is such a small brand now," Moritz said. "You wonder if it gets much worse how much pressure will be on General Mills to just drop it." --Written by Darren Rovell for CNBC.