Becomes Ringside Drink of Reality Boxing Show

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CHICAGO -- As it follows its internal marketing adage to "follow the sweat," PepsiCo's Gatorade is planning to climb into the ring of reality TV with a sponsorship of NBC's new boxing show, The Contender.
Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard are mentors to the 16 young boxers.

The deal is Gatorade's first entry into reality TV product placement and features the product being used as the primary drink during the slugfests.

Close to sweat

The sports drink wants to be "as close to the point of sweat as possible," said Dustin Cohn, director of equity communications for Gatorade. "It's about replacing what an athlete uses when they sweat, and anytime an athlete sweats, they should be drinking Gatorade. Boxing is a hot, sweaty sport that requires a lot of effort and these athletes need proper hydration and replenishment to perform at their best."

Produced by Mark Burnett Productions, Inc. and Dreamworks, The Contender is a reality show that follows the competitive quest of 16 boxers mentored by Sylvester Stallone.

Presumably, the show will provide plenty of chances for that. The young pugilists, several of them already known in the ring, will live together and compete in weekly elimination challenges and bouts for a chance at a title and $1 million in a live Las Vegas final match. Boxing royalty Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman and manager Jackie Kallen as den mother-mentor add star power -- and implied credibility -- to the show.

Mr. Cohn, a former executive at Gatorade's ad agency, Element 79 Partners in Chicago, emphasized that brand integration was something Gatorade intended to use as a complement to its traditional advertising rather than "in lieu of it."

Unscripted viewing format

Curiously, Gatorade doesn't appear to view its NFL sponsorship or the appearance of its branded cups and coolers in football broadcasts to be product placements in an unscripted viewing format.

He said the marketer doesn't have a specific product placement strategy but reviews proposals on a case-by-case basis.

In the particular case of The Contender, the proposal was brought to Gatorade by Mr. Burnett and Rocky star and director Mr. Stallone.

In the year since negotiations began, The Contender has gone a couple of rounds in court with a competing show on the Fox network, The Next Great Champ. Now, after four Champ episodes produced poor ratings, The Contender, has moved back to its original January time slot. On the downside, the show is drawing criticism from boxing fans regarding concessions that it and Next Great Champ received from state boxing commissioners -- all in the name of bringing the sport back to prime-time TV.

Show's own boxing league

Producers for The Contender created the show's own boxing league, where hopefuls can win not only a $1 million purse but a four-year, multilayered contract to train and be a legitimate "contender," said Mr. Burnett's manager, Conrad Riggs, who has been intimately involved in the deal-making.

The biggest hurdle was getting the fights authorized under state boxing regulations. Producers of both Champ and Contender were sanctioned as boxing promoters by the California State Athletic Commission. However, they also were given unprecedented concessions on rules about disclosing the match results to keep them secret and build suspense for the final bout. Each boxer signed a waiver of voluntary suspension until after the final show, said Dean Lohuis, executive officer for the state's athletic commission.

PepsiCo is confident in the arrangements. "We have a lot of faith in the authentic and credible way that [the creators] are producing this program," Mr. Cohn said. "It's about real boxers and real competition."

He added that Gatorade has no say in program content.
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