24 Hour Fitness Scores Coup Over Rival Bally Total Fitness

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LOS ANGELES -- When Reveille Entertainment decided to tackle the battle of the bulge as the theme of its reality show The Biggest Loser, it only made sense that producers would seek out a major fitness club chain as one of its big sponsors.
24 Hour Fitness branding appears throughout the show, which has pulled NBC's highest audience ratings in three years for the time slot.

In what became a major marketing coup, 24 Hour Total Fitness Worldwide managed to muscle its way into the show instead of its much larger rival Bally Total Fitness.

Weight loss contest

The series, which launched last fall, featured the daily struggles of contestants, exercising under the watchful eye of personal trainers, eating special diets and competing in various physical challenges. Comedian Caroline Rhea served as host.

In the show, 24 Hour Fitness provided the custom-built gym in which contestants are seen working out. The company's logo also receives prime placement on signage throughout sets.

Executives at 24 Hour Fitness said the creative fit was important in their decision to embed the brand into the show. They liked that the workout rooms, where contestants would spend much of their time, would be branded 24 Hour Fitness, and that their merchandise would be in front of all the participants. A pivotal moment featured a contestant finishing a race wearing a 24 Hour Fitness T-shirt. Executives didn't mind building the gyms to match the rustic horse ranch surroundings where the show was shooting in Malibu, Calif. Usually the fitness centers are high tech and glossy.

But 24 Hour Fitness wasn't originally intended as the show's main sponsor.

Bally was network's first choice

NBC executives had been discussing a possible integration deal with Bally Total Fitness, which has 440 clubs in 29 states and advertises on NBC. But that deal wasn't coming together.

Meanwhile, Dave Broome, one of the show's executive producers, was giving 24 Hour Fitness' CEO Mark Mastrov the lowdown on the series. The chain, based near San Francisco, has
24 Hour Fitness branding appears throughout the show, which has pulled NBC's highest audience ratings in three years for the time slot.

about 330 locations in 16 states, all west of the Mississippi, and Mr. Broome had been a longtime member. Because it's not a national chain, the clubs' media mix consists mostly of regional spot TV buys, print, Internet and direct marketing.

"They completely understood what we were trying to do with the show," Mr. Broome said. "Even though they'd never done an integration before, they got it."

'They let go of their inhibitions'

The chain was more flexible than many integration veterans, Mr. Broome said. "They let go of their inhibitions and that's unique for somebody right out of the gate."

24 Hour Fitness agreed to pay an undisclosed integration fee to be involved with Biggest Loser. NBC executives blessed the deal, even though it did not include an ad buy, which is almost always a prerequisite for brand integration. Within three weeks of settling deal points, the show was in production.

NBC Universal TV Studio; Ben Silverman, CEO of Reveille Entertainment; Mr. Broome's 25/7 Productions; and J.D. Roth with 3 Ball Productions produced The Biggest Loser. While the show and its concept were unproven, and its title potentially controversial, the producers were a strong selling point not only for NBC but also 24 Hour Fitness. Reveille, for one, had success with series such as The Restaurant and Blow Out.

NBC's highest ratings in three years

The Biggest Loser turned out to be a surprise winner, giving NBC its highest ratings in its time period in three years.

The series also is being credited with giving 24 Hour Fitness a bump in business.

The chain's executives wouldn't give specific numbers, but said new memberships "far exceeded goals" in November, December and January. First-of-the-year figures often jump because of post-holiday guilt and New Year's resolutions, but executives attributed much of the increase in traffic to the tie-in with Biggest Loser.

"Because of this show, we started getting huge exposure in areas we'll grow into in the future," said Brad Fogel, 24 Hour Fitness' chief marketing officer, who joined the chain late last year from its agency of record, Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco. "It's aligning us with a message we want to put out without us pounding our chests."

Franchise plans for the show

The Biggest Loser is now becoming a franchise. Beyond a second season, the show's producers %%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% are planning a spin-off that will pit teams against each other, like office vs. office, town vs. town, bride vs. bride. Matchups will be self-contained episodes, which will repeat better and rake in more money in syndication. There's no launch date yet for that series.

With solid ratings behind them, the producers could have shopped the deal to another fitness chain or raised the integration fee for the second season. Mr. Broome said he wasn't interested in doing so.

"That's not what a partnership is about," he said. "They helped us, and I want them to come along."

24 Hour Fitness expands deal

The success of season one has spawned a broader deal with 24 Hour Fitness for season two, which will launch sometime this summer on NBC. The fitness chain will be integrated into new episodes and plans call for a full marketing and promotional campaign around them.

In addition to integration, executives plan to step up their involvement on-screen and off. Details are still coming together, but there could be ad campaigns starring Biggest Loser participants, promotions in the gyms, contests and other consumer outreach.

Executives at the chain will aim to build marketing and promotional programs so that they can track whether consumers are responding to the integration by coming in for trials and signing up for memberships.

The Biggest Loser reaches out to a demographic that 24 Hour Fitness calls "assistance seekers." Those people will be able to relate to the Biggest Loser participants who need help and motivation to get in shape. Many of them, as much of the overweight general population, may be intimidated in a gym situation.

"These opportunities are few and far between, and this was as close to a no-brainer as it gets," Mr. Fogel said. "The whole message of the show was that fitness can help you live a better life."
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