NBA EAGER TO PLAY ENTERTAINMENT GAME; STERN SEES LEAGUE AS 'POOR MAN'S DISNEY'

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A snapshot of David Stern's vision for the National Basketball Association has been appearing during playoffs on your local NBC affiliate, in the form of advertis-ing rather than the games themselves.

It's a McDonald's Corp. campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, that mixes the NBA's most animated stars-Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley among them-with the most colorful characters in the Warner Bros. stable, including Bugs Bunny and the Tazmanian Devil.

"It's got to be the best-crafted NBA [related] ad campaign I've ever seen," the commissioner said in an interview with Advertising Age. "And it might give you an idea where we're headed."

The stated ambition of Mr. Stern-the man who engineered 10 years of player-owner harmony as well as built the NBA's marketing machine-is to make the NBA "a poor man's Disney." As such, the NBA would use its basic format as a North American league of professional basketball players as a springboard to become a global provider of entertainment content, whether it be programming or licensed product.

As the line between sports and entertainment blurs, the NBA will be spending more and more time off the court and in the studios.

Another example of this "NBA goes Hollywood" direction materialized during playoff games over the weekend, when the league broke an "I love this game" spot featuring the star of one of this summer's big Hollywood films-"Casper," that friendly ghost-in an effort created by Amblin Entertainment and NBA Entertainment, the league's production house and brainchild of Mr. Stern.

NBA Entertainment is a key element in Mr. Stern's vision. He's now offering the unit's services to Hollywood studios to assist in developing basketball-theme movies-including Warner's upcoming Jordan-Bugs film.

NBA Entertainment also worked with Billy Crystal on his new Columbia Pictures film "Forget Paris," about an NBA referee in love. Next year will see "Celtic Pride" and a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle.

The NBA unit provides film- makers with players, uniforms, stadiums and script development. By the end of the decade, NBA Entertainment will also be developing its own film projects.

In addition, NBA Entertainment is talking with TV producers about creating animated and live-action NBA-theme entertainment for basketball fans the world over.

Kids programming is another area of interest. Mr. Stern is talking with Nickelodeon about creating programs aimed at children.

Already in development for syndication is "National Battalion of All-Stars," an animated series about a fictional group of pros who travel the galaxy, meeting and playing alien ballplayers. Programs like this will be sold on a barter basis as the NBA plans to retain ad time to sell to its sponsors.

Mr. Stern is at the helm of the NBA's moves into the Internet and interactive TV (see related story in Interactive Media & Marketing, Page 26). Plans are nearing completion for an NBA site on the World Wide Web, and Mr. Stern has had discussions with Pacific Telesis and Bell Atlantic Corp. about taking part in their video dialtone network tests.

The commissioner sees such expansion as a means to an end: establishing the NBA as a global brand.

"What we're trying to do is maintain the ubiquity of our product, and we want to do this by getting the NBA and basketball into new areas of entertainment," Mr. Stern said. "We're determined to make the NBA a global marketing vehicle for global marketers, a resource that can give them anything they want: media time, promotions or consumer products as premiums."

There only seems to be one big obstacle to Mr. Stern's vision.

"We have this little thing called a collective bargaining agreement that needs to be worked out first," said Mr. Stern, who, as the league's first general counsel, crafted the NBA's groundbreaking collective bargaining pact in 1983. That deal saved the league from financial ruin and made owners and players marketing partners in rebuilding the NBA. In '84, the owners made Mr. Stern commissioner.

Now, Mr. Stern must convince a new generation of marketing-savvy stars that such a partnership is still necessary.

Owners and players agreed to play the current season without a deal while negotiations continued in good faith. Mr. Stern said that won't be the case next season, while adding, "I'm hopeful we can have a deal before this season ends" early next month.

The buzz around the league is that Mr. Stern's hope will be realized.

"All these players want to be big stars," said one agent, "but except for Shaq or Jordan, they can't do it alone. They need Stern and the NBA. That's why they'll deal."

The players can present other impediments to Mr. Stern's grand plan. Unlike Disney and its cartoon characters, the NBA can't control players' behavior, and their deportment on and off the court has sometimes been a concern. In the worst case, it can erupt into full-scale tragedy, as in the 1993 alleged drug-related death of Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis.

While Mr. Stern said the NBA is investigating the Lewis incident, he stated the league won't be compelled to action by allegations from anonymous sources, as has been the case.

"I'm waiting for some identifiable person to make a statement baring their name," the commissioner said. "This is crucial to me."

The NBA is already a global presence. Its games are telecast in 159 countries, reaching 500 million households. The league's offices in Australia, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland and Miami (serving Latin America) in large part serve to assist global sponsors like Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's in creating NBA-theme promotions.

As far as the teams that make up the league, Mr. Stern doesn't believe the NBA needs franchises outside North America to support these ambitions.

"There would be a lot of people who say we don't quite have it right in North America," he said. "I don't think we're ready to visit ourselves on the rest of the world with franchises.

"But," added the NBA's chief, who at 52 has no intention of retiring any time soon, "never say never."

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