NFL stars stage end run around SAG picket lines

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Two high-profile professional football players who are Screen Actors Guild members--Keyshawn Johnson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Eddie George of the Tennessee Titans--broke rank with striking members of their union to film commercials for sports apparel marketer Adidas America.

The incident underscores the tension building as the commercials actors strike wends its way into its fourth week, forcing some production companies and agencies to consider non-union talent or foreign production locations as deadlines for campaigns near.

The unions called the strike May 1 over pay-for-play fees for cable and other compensation issues and now are cranking up the heat, picketing TV networks' upfront presentations last week in New York.

On the West Coast, tensions over the strike also fueled a conflagration between production company RSA USA, which tried to capitalize on the action, and the Screen Actors Guild.

ADIDAS SPOTS

The Adidas spots featuring Messrs. Johnson and George were produced in Arizona May 9 by Adidas agency Leagas Delaney, San Francisco, and will be telecast on TV sports programming in October. The spots are part of Adidas' continuing "Training for Sport" campaign, which shows how off-field training can lead to better on-field performance.

Robin Berry, football and baseball promotion manager for Adidas America, confirmed those spots had been filmed, along with another featuring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' John Lynch. It could not be learned at press time if Mr. Lynch is a member of SAG or the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, the other union involved in the strike.

Jerome Stanley, president of Stanley & Associates, Los Angeles, and Mr. Johnson's agent, said, "Keyshawn respects the SAG position and supports them in their struggle to secure more fair wages in today's era of exploding technology and multiple uses of content." But he said the football player's longtime deal with Adidas was key to Mr. Johnson's decision.

"[The filming] is for a corporate partner that has been with him his entire career," Mr. Stanley said, adding, "This helps him fulfill a pre-existing contract." Mr. Johnson has done three other commercials for Adidas since signing with the company in 1995.

Agents representing Messrs. George and Lynch did not return phone calls by press time.

PRESSURE BUILDS

Adidas' move could put pressure on other advertisers using professional athletes as endorsers to produce commercials during the strike, marketing executives said. Since the strike began, golfer Tiger Woods has refused to appear in a commercial for Nike and Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra declined to act in a planned Dunkin' Donuts spot.

Strike or no strike, a Nike spokesman said, "we are going ahead with our advertising plans." Asked whether this could include athletes who are SAG members, the spokesman said, "That could very well be." Nike's agency, Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., is a signatory to previous agreements with SAG, so it must abide by minimum wage rules, a major issue for unions. Adidas agency Leagas Delaney has not been a signatory. Executives wouldn't comment.

Several athletic unions are supporting the walkout, including the Major League Baseball Players Union and the National Basketball Association Players' Union. Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA players union, issued a directive to the organization's 400 members last week, asking them to refuse to shoot endorsements for the duration of the strike. The NBA players union went through a lockout that eliminated nearly half the 1998-99 season.

BUSINESS PITCH RILES SAG

A related flap ensued last week as Marcus Nispel, a director who works for commercial production house RSA USA (owned by film directors Ridley and Tony Scott) set out to solicit business during the strike with a print ad in TV commercial production newsweekly Shoot. The ad showed a photo of a bare-breasted black woman with the caption, "In South Africa, this is what SAG means." The ad went on: "To service clients, Marcus Nispel is setting up a temporary office in South Africa, where production is cost-effective and they've never heard of SAG."

A SAG spokesman called the ad offensive, and members of the union protested outside the West Hollywood, Calif., office of RSA USA. The Scott brothers, in a statement, responded, "We knew nothing about this ad and are as upset, sickened and appalled by it as anyone else." A group of production companies, is putting together a response ad with the following copy: "We think directors should be hired for their taste. Last week's ad in Shoot showed none."

But loyalty within the production industry may also be strained, as crews are idled.

"While we appreciate SAG's issue, we also have to appreciate the families that are supported by these cottage industries that are called production companies," said a production executive who requested anonymity.

"Production companies with a lot of overhead will be hit hard," said Steve Dickstein, president of Partizan Films, New York. "They can hold out for one or two months. That's about it. They'll start looking for other places around the world to take their business. I wouldn't want to recommend shooting in Los Angeles right now."

DIVIDED LOYALTIES

Agencies, too, may be starting to feel divided loyalties. "It's causing problems," one West Coast ad executive said. While "we're looking at alternatives [such as using non-union talent or moving production overseas]," he said, "It's a huge question. Our client wants to be a good corporate citizen."

Deadlines, however, are looming both for summer and the important back-to-school selling season, one top agency creative said. "Our clients have a right to continue to market their products."

Ira Shepard, however, counsel to a joint committee of the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies that is negotiating with the unions, claimed solidarity among its membership. "We have now met with over 600 advertiser, agency and production officials and can report that commercial production is continuing virtually unimpeded by the SAG/AFTRA strike."

One agency production chief, asked about what he expected in the near term, said, "There will be a lot more animation."

Contributing: Richard Linnett

Copyright May 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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