NBA's rookie royalty

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Jerry Stackhouse enters league with promo partners at the ready

In what's shaping up to be the sports marketing industry's version of an annual coronation of new royalty, the National Basketball Association has anointed the new season's Most Marketable Rookie:

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the third player chosen in the 1995 NBA draft, selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, representing Fila USA, Fleer/SkyBox trading cards and, now, Schick shaving products...Jerry Stackhouse.

Warner-Lambert Co.'s Schick has signed a deal with Mr. Stackhouse to serve as spokesman for the 1996 Schick Rookie Game, to be held during the NBA's All-Star Game Weekend in San Antonio Feb. 9 to 11.

The Schick Rookie Game is the annual centerpiece of the NBA's effort to promote its young stars. The effort began two years ago, about the time 1980s icons like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson opted to hang up their sneakers. Fittingly, the Rookie Game replaced an All-Star Weekend staple, the old-timers game.

"This kind of promotion is something we've always been interested in but has become more of a focal point in recent years," said Mike Stevens, VP-marketing partnerships for NBA Properties, New York. "Rookies get great exposure in college so they get noticed earlier by marketers. So any chance we get we're going to promote young stars, especially among young audiences."

Basking in young stars

This year will see other NBA sponsors and marketing partners invest more dollars in pushing the league's young stars. Nike, which focused its high-profile spring basketball ads on young turks Anfernee Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning, has Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., creating a young stars-theme campaign for the fall. McDonald's Corp. will add '95 Rookie Game spokesman Grant Hill to the roster of stars to be featured in its annual spring promotion.

Some in the industry see such NBA promotion as a calculated effort to buff off some of the tarnish the league has suffered recently, such as a Sports Illustrated cover story last year lambasting young NBA stars as spoiled and petulant.

But Mr. Stevens said such talk has had little negative impact on the league's perception among fans, sponsors and media partners. Moreover, he insisted the NBA doesn't choose and favor certain players, but instead capitalizes on naturally emerging stars.

Still, Mr. Stackhouse is the next in an emerging trend of marketer-friendly young stars promoted by the NBA.

Up with "family values"

"After years of `edgy' icons, Jerry represents a return to traditional role models and an emphasis on values," said Tom George, VP-athlete marketing for Advantage International, Washington, which also represents Mr. Hill. "To some degree, it mirrors what society wants: a return to family values."

Clearly, the support that Mr. Stackhouse's sponsors are putting behind him could help elevate the rookie to Hill-high status. Mr. Hill already has deals with Fila, Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite brand and General Motors Corp. In February, Fila will introduce Mr. Stackhouse's signature shoe, the Stack Mid, supported by TV and print ads from FCB/Leber Katz Partners, New York.

Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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