MACKER WINS AT 3-ON-3 COURTSHIP

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BELDING, Mich.-On a recent weekend in this tiny Michigan town, Macker Mania was in full force.

Basketball courts, their backboards emblazoned with corporate logos, clogged closed-off streets and parking lots. More than 200,000 players and fans had descended on the town of 6,000.

The founders of the 3-on-3 basketball tournament, Scott and Mitch McNeal, kicked off Gus Macker weekend with opening ceremonies on Friday night in front of the Belding Town Hall, and then the games began. More than 3,300 teams participatedin this year's Belding Gus Macker Charity Basketball Tournament.

What began 20 years ago as some kids organizing a neighborhood 3-on-3 tournament has bloomed into 60-plus events run across the U.S., luring marketing giants like Reebok International as sponsors.

It has also spawned Gus Macker Enterprises, which has a database of about 400,000 participants that includes addresses, phone numbers and other important Macker criteria like height, experience and age.

Gus Macker has done all this with no advertising. Using only grass-roots marketing, the tournament has matured from a neighborhood competition to a booming business with more than $5 million a year in revenue.

Most of the company's marketing is done by word-of-mouth and through the Gus Macker T-shirts given free to everyone participating. It has also started sponsoring a Continental Basketball Association team that plays during Gus Macker's "off-season."

Back in Belding, players from kids to adults, with all types of experience and skill levels, had come to compete. You could even catch a glimpse of Gus Macker CEO Mark Kimball playing a little 3-on-3.

"Anybody who plays pickup basketball knows about Gus Macker," said Matt Haran, 23, a Novi resident who has been participating for five years. "The tournaments are well-run, competitive and a lot of fun." So much so that he will be participating in three Gus Macker tournaments this year.

Macker Mania was born during spring break 1974 in the small western Michigan town of Lowell. Some kids organized a tournament in the driveway of 17-year-old Scott McNeal-the oldest kid in the neighborhood-and his 15-year-old brother, Mitch.

For a few years, the tournament went on without much change. Then participants began recruiting friends from outside the town and became more organized.

The "Gus Macker" tag for the tournament came from the playground nickname of Scott McNeal.

A Sports Illustrated article in 1985 tossed Gus Macker into the national spotlight. That led the McNeal brothers to form Gus Macker Enterprises, organizing the tournament with entry fees and scheduling by brackets. In '87, the tournament moved from Lowell to Belding, and the company started tournaments in other cities. The tournament series now has national, regional and local sponsors. Reebok is a national sponsor.

"National sponsorships contracts last for three years, and promoters are required to provide products or cash to enhance the tournament on a national level," Mr. Kimball said. Sponsorships are valued between $250,000 and $500,000 a year.

Gus Macker figures on drawing more than 200,000 players to its 1994 tournaments in places like Chicago; San Diego; South Bend, Ind.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Chattanooga, Tenn.

"We add cities by request," Mr. Kimball said. "We have never aggressively approached a town; we've always been invited."

All of the tournaments are promoted through local ties. Gus Macker relies on the charitable groups it works with locally to advertise and market the event to potential players.

Over the years, Gus Macker has accumulated a giant network of volunteers across the country, and support of the event continues to grow, Mr. Kimball said.

Every tournament sponsors a local charity. Gus Macker has raised more than $3 million for the charities.

"The company's No. 1 goal is not financially driven but to make a difference in the communities that we go to," Mr. Kimball said.

Gus Macker isn't the only player on its court. Since 1987, competition in the 3-on-3 basketball business has increased. Others like Dallas-based Hoop It Up have entered the market. Hoop It Up is endorsed by the National Basketball Association and owned by Streetball Partners International, a sports marketing company part-owned by NBC Sports.

To increase recognition of its 3-on-3 tournaments, Gus Macker this past year started sponsoring a professional CBA team. The Grand Rapids Mackers begins its season in November and ends it in late March. Since most of the 3-on-3 tournaments are in summer and fall, the CBA team helps keep the name Gus Macker in front of consumers throughout the year, Mr. Kimball said.

Gus Macker is also responding to more "commercial" tournaments by trying to recruit additional sponsors and hasn't ruled out advertising altogether.

"As this industry becomes more competitive, we have to find a way to make sure we get our message to the market," Mr. Kimball said. However, he's still committed to grass-roots efforts.

"Gus Macker is a grass-roots event, not a commercial event, and we plan to stay that way," he asserted. "Loyalty of our cities is our strength."

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