THE TACO BELL CIRCUS

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We're not certain when today's pro boxing world became a role model for other people in marketing, but Taco Bell's "The War on the Floor" basketball event comes right from fight promoter Don King's playbook.

The "showdown" between NBA stars Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon in advertising (a la McDonald's playful spots with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird) is now taking on the trappings of a typical over-hyped boxing match. The winner is to get a $1 million purse, the event is being staged Sept. 30 at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, and Taco Bell is trying to find other, lesser NBA luminaries for warm-up matches to this main event. And the organizers think plenty of basketball fans will shell out good hard cash to see it all on pay-per-view TV. Sound familiar?

Signing two of the National Basketball Association's marquee attractions for a "one-on-one" promotion, under the noses of the NBA brass and NBA official sponsor McDonald's, was a slam-dunk idea as ambush marketing, event marketing and sports marketing. But the idea's designers have made the promotion both bigger and badder.

Sure, Atlantic City's recent Monica Seles vs. Martina Navratilova "exhibition match" was buried in hype, too. But at least it had a story line (Ms. Seles' return to big-time tennis) that had some genuine human interest. Shaq vs. Hakeem doesn't have that. Basketball is a team sport, and their two teams met in the NBA finals, where the issue was decided.

With the NBA and its millionaire players already squabbling over pay, and threatening to disrupt the upcoming season, Taco Bell's promotion just looks like a mega-buck circus payday for two wealthy NBA stars and their hustling agents. Sponsors are important to sports, but quick-buck promotions by ambush marketers can hurt the sport more than the competition.

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