NFL Backs Broadway Play About Legendary Coach

League Uses 'Lombardi' to Launch Rebranding Effort Around Super Bowl

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Dan Lauria portrays legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
Dan Lauria portrays legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The National Football League, despite its deep and extensive catalog of NFL Films that date back decades, has never been much of a caretaker of its own history, certainly not in the way that Major League Baseball cultivates its tradition or, say, the way the National Hockey League values the Stanley Cup.

That all changes starting Thursday night.

The NFL is lending its massive marketing machine and support to the most unlikely of partnerships: a Broadway play, "Lombardi," that opens at New York's Circle in the Square Theater. The show is about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who guided his team to victory in the first two Super Bowls and whose name is actually on the Super Bowl trophy.

Except very few people know that, or know the great coach's background.

"I think that was probably what propelled us into doing this," said Tracy Perlman, the NFL's VP-entertainment marketing and promotions. "It's the pinnacle of our sport and people need to know the story around it. I mean, there's a reason why it's named the Vince Lombardi Trophy."

And with the play comes a re-branding effort. Ms. Perlman said that for the first time the NFL is changing its postseason insignia to include the Lombardi Trophy.

"The postseason marks have evolved, and the trophy is now the piece that will be the standard," she said, adding that the Roman numerals that accompany every Super Bowl will now be placed around the logo of the Lombardi Trophy.

Ms. Perlman has been with the NFL for 18 years and remembers a time "when I couldn't get anybody to say yes to licensing our trademark for a movie. But Commissioner [Roger] Goodell has said, 'Let's be innovative. Let's be exciting,' so we are."

Rarely does Broadway and sports mix. Even the most famous sports-related Broadway show, "Damn Yankees," was more a morality tale of romance and the devil than a sports story.

So when former Anheuser-Busch sports marketing guru Tony Ponturo came to Ms. Perlman with the idea for the play, her initial reaction was: "A Broadway play. About football. Right." But Mr. Ponturo and his partner, Fran Kirmser, sold Ms. Perlman and Mr. Goodell on Mr. Lombardi's backstory. Mr. Ponturo has a long relationship with Mr. Goodell, which they kept up even after Mr. Ponturo left A-B in 2008.

Mr. Ponturo formed his own New York-based company and became involved as an associate producer in the Broadway revival of "Hair," as well as a producer on the Broadway show "Memphis." He still keeps a replica of the Lombardi Trophy in his office along with other sports memorabilia, and had read David Maraniss' biography on Mr. Lombardi, "When Pride Still Mattered," and thought it would make a great Broadway play.

"Lombardi" stars Dan Lauria as the coach and Judith Light as his wife, Marie Lombardi.

"The Good Housekeeping seal of approval from the NFL was important," Mr. Ponturo said. "When we had breakfast with Roger, my sell was that there's this amazing tradition, but the story hasn't been told. We asked him how many people really understood the tradition of the NFL and of Vince Lombardi. Thankfully he agreed that it wasn't many, and with that, he simply said, 'Tell us what we can do.' "

The NFL is lending its marketing muscle to the show. The league has placed banner ads for "Lombardi" on NFL.com, has a commercial running during Sunday telecasts of games and sent out email blasts to its database of fans offering discounts on tickets. The NFL also put a billboard in New York's Times Square and worked with one of its TV partners, Fox, to send its pregame hosts -- made up primarily of ex-NFL players and coaches -- to see and review the show while it was in previews.

The league is also working with individual teams so that when they travel to New York to play either the Jets or Giants during the rest of this year, the teams will include ticket offers to "Lombardi" as part of their travel packages. And the producers have also invited large numbers of high school and college students to the previews and created an online lesson plan for teachers to utilize.

Mr. Ponturo and Ms. Kirmser did go the traditional route by hiring theater-centric agency Art Meets Commerce for advertising; Boneau, Bryan, Brown for theatrical public relations; and New York-based sports marketing expert Joe Favorito to work the sports journalism side of promotion.

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