By Published on .

It was a moment of revelation that not even the best screenwriter could have crafted.

At halftime in what could go down as one of the best "NFL Monday Night Football" games ever -- Kansas City's come-from-behind win over Denver Oct. 17 -- Brent Musburger was interviewing Deion Sanders, the flashy, outspoken cornerback now with the San Francisco 49ers.

The ABC sportscaster asked Mr. Sanders about his much-publicized fight with a former Atlanta teammate when the two clubs met the day before. The athlete admitted fighting had no place in sports, adding: "I'm not a fighter. I'm an entertainer."

Not an athlete -- an entertainer. Such is the mind-set among professional athletes in the post-Jordan era, where being like Mike means being a polished celebrity who can slam, spike and strut for the highlight reel; give good sound bite without embarrassing himself, his sport and his sponsors; and be able to find that Disneyland film crew amid the pandemonium of winning a world championship.

If nothing else, the sports news of the past year -- from the show that was Mr. Jordan's retirement, to the Nancy and Tonya soap opera, to O.J. Simpson, to labor pains -- lay bare the fact that professional sports have indeed become big league show business, with boldfaced emphasis on business.

In one of the most telling examples, the winner going away this year for Advertising Age's Cover Story crown (a rating of the number of times celebrities appear on magazine covers) will be Mr. Simpson, a former football star and endorser turned sportscaster turned accused murderer. The runner-up will be the story of skater Nancy Kerrigan and the pre-Olympic attack on her by the entourage of rival Tonya Harding. Sports figures haven't finished that high since the Cover Story competition began in 1988.

Among the biggest changes within sports: just what constitutes a league. The National Basketball Association, for example, has become by its own admission an international media company, producing software-its games and ancillary programs-for outlets in 140 countries. The NBA even has its own production facility and studio in Secaucus, N.J., called NBA Entertainment.

"We often compare ourselves to the Walt Disney Co., actually," said Rick Welts, president of NBA Properties, the league's marketing arm. "We have theme parks -- 27 scattered across the country. We'll add two more in Canada next year. We have characters-figuratively and literally. We have licensed products. We just don't make feature films.

"But we do make 1,100 new episodes every season with no repeats."

Such talk of sports becoming show biz usually evokes shrieks of blasphemy from sports purists.

"It's still competition, but which master is being served? Sports or entertainment?" asked Alan Friedman, editor of the Chicago-based Team Marketing Report. "The way games are going, with leagues getting much more sophisticated in their marketing and athletes becoming more like performers, it's hard to deny that sports are pure entertainment."

So pure that sports leagues are now pondering branching out into actual amusement parks. The National Football League has considered the possibility of building a new stadium in Los Angeles with an adjoining theme park. And Mr. Welts believes the NBA will partner with a theme park operator within 10 years to build an entertainment center in an existing theme park.

The evolution of sports into show business stems from the leagues' strategy of positioning their businesses as entertainment that can appeal to both the casual and serious sports fan. A key part of that strategy was to turn their athletes into celebrity entertainers, and it worked, perhaps too well. Now, these athletes want to be paid the fair market amount that entertainers of their stature can command.

When and if labor deals can be reached in all leagues, the marketing challenge for the rest of the 1990s will be rebuilding bridges with the fans.

"We can't risk turning off the young fans," said David Ropes, senior VP-global marketing services at Reebok International. "Athletes have to step up and use their wealth and power to give back to the game and fans. There needs to be more of this than there is now."

Forget that Nike-Charles Barkley ad. In this post-O.J. age, role models will be chic.

"Companies are going to be looking for athletes who can have a positive impact on society," said Fred Fried, VP at Integrated Sports International, an East Rutherford, N.J.-based sports marketing company.

Mr. Fried just signed an endorsement deal with Minolta Corp. for NBA star John Starks. A tag at the end of the spot from Campbell Mithun Esty, New York, will explain that Mr. Starks and Minolta will each donate $100 to charity for every three-pointer he hits this season. The commercial breaks this winter.

The entertainment marketing revolution began in earnest in 1983 with the crafting of the NBA's landmark labor deal. With many teams on the verge of financial collapse and the league as a whole tarnished by the perception of rampant drug use, Commissioner David Stern forged a bold plan that called for a salary cap and a stringent anti-drug policy.

"The agreement proved to be a key marketing tool in just the fact that a partnership between owners and players had then created an atmosphere and right kind of image for people in the corporate world that they wanted to be associated with us," Mr. Welts said.

That atmosphere and image were further enhanced a year later by Michael Jordan's arrival into the NBA. The Chicago Bulls signed him, as did a growing athletic footwear company based in Beaverton, Ore., looking to get bigger with some exciting advertising and a marketable young athlete.

Nike and Portland agency Wieden & Kennedy turned Mr. Jordan into a pop culture phenomenon. In 1986, the NBA signed three-year deals with CBS and Turner Broadcasting System worth a combined $233 million. This year, the league signed four-year deals with NBC and TNT worth $1 billion.

The formula was simple: Media partner. Marketing. Superstars.

"The leagues that haven't been successful in marketing or the leagues that have come and gone -- it's because they failed at their attempts to create stars," said Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports. "It used to be network promotion used to focus on the game. Now it's about the stars."

Such advice has been heeded by other sports leagues and networks. Major League Soccer, which begins play in 12 cities next April, put in place a star-making mechanism before signing its first player. First, it found TV partners -- ABC and ESPN -- and marketing partners -- Adidas America, Apex One, Nike and Reebok. An announcement is expected this week about potential investors and the five remaining franchise sites.

After Fox snared the National Football Conference TV rights package from CBS for $1.6 billion last December, the network hired a pre-eminent Beverly Hills-based entertainment marketing agency, the Seiniger Advertising Group, to create a star-building promotional campaign aimed at luring new, young viewers.

"My push was to discover the men and personalities under the helmet," said agency President Tony Seiniger. "That's what made the NBA successful. They keyed in on personalities. Athletes are like actors, only they're not pretending. They have these personal back-stories, emotional content that goes way beyond the sport."

And after Fox purchased the National Hockey League TV rights in September for a cool $155 million, the network turned to Mr. Seiniger again. The campaign is scheduled to break on Dec. 1.

"The image we usually have of these guys is gladiators with cut faces and missing teeth," Mr. Seiniger said. "Our job is to find the Keanu Reeves of hockey. We have to find the matinee idols."

Unfortunately for the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball, a Keanu Reeves doesn't come cheap. A decade of matinee-idol marketing has also been marked by escalating salaries, wreaking havoc on owners' bottom line.

"We have no problem with players becoming stars," said Stephen Solomon, senior VP at the NHL. "We want them to be stars. We will promote them as stars. That's why we chose Nike [as an NHL sponsor], given what they've done for the NBA. We have no problem with them getting paid like stars. It's just a question of how much."

Companies that have come to depend on sports leagues as important marketing vehicles fear that if leagues can't contain their costs, those costs will get passed on to them. That could result in sponsorship prices that could scare away marketers.

"That's the only issue that might deter us away from using sports as a marketing vehicle," said Bill Schmidt, VP-sports marketing at Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade. "As costs for owners go up, the cost for us goes up, in terms of media and sponsorship."

Anheuser-Busch hopes the labor negotiations will yield permanent solutions, as well. The brewer, an MLB sponsor, had to cancel a major World Series promotion for Budweiser because of baseball's labor conflicts. And to avoid getting burned again, A-B-also an NHL sponsor-is now huddling with agency DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, to rework several hockey-theme spots for the Ice Draft brand.

"The biggest things you look for in sponsorship is competitive edge and a media platform to deliver the message," said Tony Ponturo, VP-corporate media and sports marketing at A-B. "In the month of October, we were going to have an edge over our competition by advertising on World Series games. You can't replace that."

Some sports marketing executives believe that companies will be reluctant to associate with leagues that can't curb costs, saying fans won't support those athletes and leagues that appear greedy.

"When hogs get fatter, they get slaughtered," said Robert Prazmark, president of 21 Marketing, Greenwich, Conn. "The perception of greed is not good for a sports league and its players. So why would a marketer want to be associated with a league if there's a risk of getting tainted by that?"

But despite the labor problems, many advertisers say the leagues will continue to be viable marketing vehicles. NBC's Mr. Ebersol bore this out by saying that ad sales for the next four years of the NBA are 80% sold out and that two-thirds of the inventory for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta has been purchased.

And moreover, marketers say sports are too ingrained in the American character to be dismissed so easily.

"Almost at birth, you're handed a football, baseball, basketball," said Reebok's Mr. Ropes. "Young boys and young girls are growing up as athletes. The accessibility of sports at middle school has increased the appetite for sports. It's a distinct part of the American lifestyle."

Most Popular
In this article: