Olympic stars face tough call in actors strike

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The commercial actors strike is forcing some hard decisions on high-profile Olympic athletes set to appear in ads. Meanwhile, production companies are continuing to weather the strike, now in its fifth week.

At least three Olympic athletes -- women's soccer star Mia Hamm, Olympic cyclist Lance Armstrong and track star Michael Johnson -- are scheduled to appear in ads for Nike. Mr. Armstrong also is slated to film spots for Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and WebMD in preparation for September's Sydney Summer Olympics. At least one, Mr. Armstrong, likely will alter his plans if the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television & Radio Artists action continues through the summer.

Sports marketing executives are saying that several professional athletes, including PGA Tour golfers Hal Sutton and Ernie Els, as well as a handful of Nascar race drivers, are believed to have broken ranks with strikers and gone ahead with commercial shoots.

HARD DECISIONS

David Bober, president of Bober & Associates, New York, the agent for Ms. Hamm, said, "Mia is scheduled to do some stuff because of the Olympics. Athletes like her, Michael Johnson and [basketball players] Lisa Leslie and Chaimqie Holdsclaw are trying to go through the challenge of figuring out what to do here."

Mr. Bober didn't disclose which advertisers were scheduled to produce spots with Ms. Hamm. But her long-term sponsorship deals include Nike, PowerBar Inc. and Quaker Oats' Gatorade.

Mr. Armstrong, the 1999 Tour de France winner, definitely won't break ranks with the union.

"It would be a mistake," said his agent Bill Stapleton, president of Capital Sports Ventures, Austin, Texas. "Out of respect for the union, athletes shouldn't cross the picket line."

BLACK ROCKET

The lingering strike also prompted San Francisco's Black Rocket to sign an agreement to pay higher wages to striking SAG workers to produce ads for client fusionOne, a San Jose, Calif., computer information service. Advertising for the anticipated $30 million TV, radio and print campaign originally was set to break in April.

"I feel like we're doing the right thing for our client's business," said John Yost, founder of Black Rocket, adding that the agency paid the premium to ensure it had an adequate talent pool without "risking using non-union talent."

Commercial production companies and crews, meanwhile, are at the front line of the job action, with some companies reporting job slowdowns.

"There have been two strikes in the last 20 years, and they've crippled the commercial production industry. And this time . . . we have to do everything we can to make production happen," said Matt Miller, president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. Mr. Miller acknowledged that the volume of production has dropped.

As a result, many production companies have moved jobs outside the country. "We're taking 80% of our productions outside Los Angeles," said one production executive who requested anonymity, "and maybe 40% to 50% outside the country."

Several production-side people believe the strike forever will alter the way ads are made and the way they look.

"Nine years ago, we were doing commercials with eight to 10 people in them," the production executive said. "Now, we are doing them with four to five actors. Now what are we going to do, [use] one to two [actors] max? The fact is, [SAG] is getting more money for fewer people, vs. more money for more of their members. It's gotten to the point that when you get a big cast you go out of the country no matter what."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo

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