BIG SHAQ ATTACK GIVING MCDONALD'S HEARTBURN

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McDonald's is facing a crisis.

No, it's not that the Beijing municipal government is forcing McDonald's to surrender its biggest and busiest location just two blocks from Tiananmen Square.

It's not that a reporter from our sister publication, Crain's Chicago Business, said the meatloaf at its Hearth Express restaurant tasted like Spam.

I'm talking trouble. Down in Orlando, where the Magic has the best record in the National Basketball Association, McDonald's is absorbing horrendous cost overruns, threatening the very fiscal integrity of the worldwide hamburger chain. In a promotion with the Magic, started three years ago when 7 foot 1 inch, 300-pound Shaquille O'Neal arrived in town, McDonald's is redeeming home game tickets for a free Big Mac (or Egg McMuffin) every time the team hits 110 points or more.

Last season Shaq led the Magic to 50 wins, 22 of which were home games where the Magic scored at least 110 points. With the team selling out all 16,000 seats, that was a lot of potential burger give-aways.

This season, the NBA made it easier for teams to run up big scores by moving in the three-point line and eliminating hand checking. The Magic also improved its team by adding Horace Grant from the Chicago Bulls; and Penny Hardaway has become an outstanding point guard.

As a result, Magic fans have been wolfing down Big Macs at an alarming rate. The Magic has reached 110 points in 11 of the 13 home games so far, and the team scored 109 in another. (Nick Anderson was the model of fiscal integrity in that game. With seconds left to play and fans feverishly chanting "Mac attack, Mac attack," Nick responded by sticking out his tongue at them and running out the clock.)

If the Magic continues to win at home by racking up 110 points at an 80% clip, the team will give fans 36 chances to trade in their tickets for free Big Macs or Egg McMuffins.

As you can well imagine, the vision of so many thousands of Big Macs leaving the Golden Arches unpaid for is causing much consternation at McDonald's world headquarters. When asked if the Magic promotion was causing a dent in McDonald's profits, a company spokesperson replied tersely, "Would you like me to send you an annual report?"

But I can tell you that many minutes of precious board meeting time have been devoted to spirited discussions about whether McDonald's should raise the Big Mac barrier to 115 points at the Magic home games next season. One board member voiced the concern, shared by others, that the company would be perceived in Orlando as cheap and stingy if the company limited the free flow of Big Macs by forcing the Magic to perform at Herculean rates.

But another board member replied heatedly: "Shaq is killing us. Maybe we should pull out of Orlando and deploy the McDonald's outlets to Minnesota. The Timberwolves average 93 points. We might find a safe haven there."

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