That will take the division far beyond being a mere licensing agent for National Basketball Association stars such as Patrick Ewing and Muggsy Bogues and could significantly alter the sports marketing landscape.
The Sports Licensing group, a unit of Looney Tunes licenser Warner Bros. Consumer Products, has already forged a deal with ACI International to create a line of Warner Bros.-branded athletic footwear that should hit the market by next fall. ACI, a marketer of licensed footwear distributed through mass merchants, is finalizing endorsement deals with two NBA athletes on the group's roster, Bryant Reeves and Glen Rice.
In addition, the sports unit, which will also license its athletes to marketers for ads and promotions, could become a magnet for athletes who view themselves primarily as entertainers.
Walt Disney Co., eager to tap that same spirit, is said to be mulling a similar division.
"We're a vehicle to a whole new world for athletes," said Dan Romanelli, president, Warner Bros. Consumer Products. "We will put them into our TV shows and movies. We will tap our home video or interactive units to create branded sports instructional videos or CD-ROMs."
The obvious weakness of the brand initially is credibility. Beyond T-shirts and trinkets, it remains to be seen if consumers will clamor for Warner sports products.
Warner Bros. Sports Licensing executives recognize hardcore sports fans may find Warner Bros. a curious competitor to Nike, Reebok International and NBA and NFL licensees.
But the immediate opportunity for Warner Bros. is strongest with its long-time mass merchant retail partners, who are hungry for credible entertainment brands.
Warner Bros. already licenses merchandise depicting their Looney Toons characters playing sports. But the new athlete-specific and branded product is a more definitive and traditional entry into the $13 billion sports licensing industry, currently overcrowded and stagnating.
Mr. Romanelli said Warner Bros. could provide a spark that the industry needs, but competitors are a bit more cynical about the short-term future.
The Warner unit's six athletes are all represented by Falk Associates Management Enterprises, Washington. Falk's marquee client is Michael Jordan, who will star with Bugs Bunny in Warner Bros.' "Space Jam" movie, a Hollywood marketing bonanza due out in 1996. In addition to Messrs. Ewing, Bogues, Rice and Reeves, the sports unit's stars include the NBA's Bobby Hurley and Juwan Howard.
"There are so many good players with good stories, but there are only so many Nike and Reebok commercials to go around," said Curtis Polk, exec VP-chief operating officer at Falk. "We believe Warner Bros. has as much marketing clout and muscle as Nike, but a greater array of platforms to exploit."
However, executives at competing sports marketing agencies question whether Warner Bros. understands what it's getting into, noting that athletes are more fickle characters than, say, Daffy Duck.
"This business is about more than selling athletes but managing their careers and lives," said Frank Vuono, president of Integrated Sports International, East Rutherford, N.J. "Ninety percent of an athlete's business is regional. It's not very glamorous and a lot if it is just making sure your guy shows up on time."