SBJ/September 28 - October 4, 1998/No Topic Name

For Advantage International, it's quality, not size, that matters

If Advantage International Inc. had a slogan, it would read, "We're number two and that's just the way we want it."

The McLean, Va.-based sports marketing firm is the second-largest sports marketing company, with 16 offices and 500 employees worldwide. Though hardly small, it is dwarfed by its rival IMG, which suits company officials fine.

"We don't want to be the biggest," said Advantage President Phil de Picciotto. "At some point in a company's life cycle, you have to make the choice of going in the direction of quality or size, though they are not mutually exclusive."

Advantage was founded in 1983 by Lee Fentress and Frank Craighill, attorneys who with Donald Dell and Ray Benton turned their law firm into ProServ Inc. in the early 1970s. The group, along with IMG's founder, Mark McCormack, was among the pioneers in the sports marketing business, which is now growing into an international industry.

Advantage International initially focused on tennis and basketball, industries familiar to the company's founders, who at the time represented a handful of athletes, including Stefan Edberg and Moses Malone.

Fifteen years later, Advantage has grown into a full-service company rivaled only by IMG in global presence and services. Consider that while Advantage represents nearly 300 athletes in 16 sports, including the NBA's David Robinson and tennis player Michael Chang, the company also represents clients like the H.O.R.D.E. musical tour and the Schubert Theatres. One of the company's areas of expertise has been the Olympics. During the 1996 Atlanta Games, Advantage was a consultant to 10 of the top 40 Olympic corporate sponsors.

But as the company became more global to meet the international needs of companies like Motorola Inc. and MasterCard International Inc., Advantage found itself lacking the capital to maintain its annual double-digit growth.

Like most other leading sports marketers, including ProServ and David Falk's FAME agency, Advantage was snapped up by a deep-pocketed public company. Last year, London-based Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., which owns some of the world's largest ad agencies, including McCann-Erickson Worldwide, bought Advantage and put it under its Octagon Group. The division consists of eight components, four owned by Advantage: athlete representation, event management, property representation and consultancy/research. The remaining four Octagon divisions are television sales, global properties, rights ownership and licensing/merchandising.

Advantage officials won't disclose its billings, but Interpublic paid $30 million to acquire the company.

The acquisition, following the trend of rapid industry consolidation, is allowing Advantage to expand its global reach through its deep-pocketed parent.

"There is a trend in the industry toward consolidation," de Picciotto said. "What Interpublic has provided us is the ability to increase our geographic scope and provides us with greater resources."

Now, as an Interpublic division, Advantage has added a television arm and is widening its client representation and properties list, beefing up the number of its baseball and hockey clients, as well as adding new events such as sailing to its portfolio. In recent months, the company has signed NHL superstar Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings and emerging women's tennis star Anna Kournikova.

But the company recently lost its highest-profile NBA star when Detroit Pistons all-star Grant Hill left to handle his own representation.

Hill's departure aside, Advantage has been able to wield much greater leverage intentionally through its Interpublic merger. Still, Advantage officials say that the company's structure has remained nearly the same.

"Nothing has changed in our day-to-day operations," de Picciotto said. "But it has given us the financial backing to pursue properties."

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