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SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/This Weeks Issue
Mattress Mac brings fireworks to sports marketing
Published June 18, 2001
Mattress Mac walks into a business meeting with Chet Gladchuk, the University of Houston athletic director. Mac's ad agency is there, too. Everyone's wearing pearls or a tie despite the June heat — except Mac, of course. He's resplendent in a baseball cap with a Gallery Furniture logo, and one of his red, white and blue Gallery Furniture polo shirts. He owns, by his estimate, "at least a thousand" articles of clothing that say Gallery Furniture. "That's all I wear," he says. "If it doesn't have Gallery Furniture on it, I throw it out."
Mac wants to brand Houston's first three home football games at Robertson Field this season as the Gallery Furniture Texas Trifecta. His furniture store will take tickets on consignment and sell them by the Barcaloungers. He'll give a Ferrari to the winner of a punt, pass and kick contest, held at halftime of the Texas game. He'll have a pep rally sponsored by the store, then get all those riled-up fans to chant his slogan, "I-will-save-you-money," and use it as a TV commercial. He'll sponsor the world's largest barbecue pit, and why not a Friday night event as well?
"I've learned to go for the whole enchilada," he tells the room. "What about the Gallery Furniture Jazz Festival? Can we get Dave Matthews?"
Jim McIngvale may not be the finest marketer in America, but he's probably the most obsessive. In two decades of owning and running the furniture store that has become Houston's largest, Mattress Mac — as everybody in Houston calls him — has purchased some 30,000 hours' worth of low-budget 30-second cable and broadcast television spots. Most of them feature Mac, in Gallery Furniture apparel, talking to the camera.
"When I first bought the Astros in '93, he's one of the first people I looked up," says Astros majority owner Drayton McLane. "He is his own brand. The first year I was in Houston, I made 150 speeches, and he made more than I did. Everywhere I went, he'd just been there."
It isn't a boast, just a fact, when Mac says he's Houston's most recognized face. "He sure makes the short list," says Bob Lanier, who retired in 1998 after three terms as the most popular mayor in the city's history. "He's an advertising phenomenon."
"Everybody I know knows him," adds George Postolos, the COO of the NBA's Houston Rockets. "When I was first thinking about coming to Houston, he's the one person that everyone I talked to mentioned to me. I'd bet he's the largest media buyer in the market. You ever visit his store? You walk in the door and he's right there, selling furniture."
Every city has its ubiquitous local marketers, car salesmen or personal-injury lawyers or furniture stores. What sets Mac apart is his use of sports to sell his product. From a standing start in the early 1980s, Gallery Furniture — a single store — now grosses $150 million annually, offering desks, chairs and beds that even Mac admits are pretty much the same as what his competitors have.
A big part of the store's success, Mac believes, comes from sports. His connection to local franchises such as the Rockets, the WNBA's Comets and MLB's Astros establishes his validity in the eyes of Houston's fans. "It's like our parents told us when we were little: Who you choose for your friends determines your life," McLane says. "He has made some wise friends with the professional sports teams."
At the same time, his branded equities, such as the Galleryfurniture.com football bowl game and Gallery Furniture Stakes thoroughbred races, have served as advertising to locals while spreading his name nationwide. The Saturday after last December's inaugural bowl game, Gallery sold and shipped $1 million of furniture. It was the best day in the history of the store, by 25 percent.
Gallery Furniture is part of a strip of furniture stores along a stretch of I-45 north of downtown Houston. It isn't especially different from competitors such as Furniture World, Furniture Selection and Landmark Furniture, other than the Elvis shrine (with his jogging suit, his stagehand's overalls and his hand-built 1956 Lincoln) Mac has amassed inside the store, and the display of Lady Di's jewels, and the sports memorabilia.
Gallery has been selling from its Web site for two years, but Internet sales constitute only a tiny percentage of its business. Local customers use the Web site to zero in on a bed or love seat they might want. Then they drive in to the 267,000-square-foot showroom and look it over.
But getting the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl in most every newspaper in the country still helps. Many visitors come to Houston having heard of the store because of the bowl game or the horse race or another of Mac's promotions or sponsorships, and they just might stop by for a look. Texans in outlying areas know the store from its advertising and media coverage, and many think nothing of a three-hour drive to Gallery to buy a chaise longue.
Mac has his eye on expansion: to Dallas, San Antonio, "or directly to the Big Apple," he says. "We're just trying to build name recognition. Trying to become the world's best-known furniture store."
Sports sponsorships alone didn't create McIngvale's empire, but when he wrote his first sports-related check — a $25,000 sponsorship of Bela Karolyi's Houston-area gymnasts in 1985 — the store was struggling. Since then, he has run an indoor track meet, a women's tennis tournament, a pro bowling event and thoroughbred stakes races, setting most of them in Houston and naming all of them after his store. "Branding, branding, branding," he says. "It's all about getting the name out there."
McIngvale has staged victory parties (one sanctioned, the other not) for the Houston Rockets' two NBA championships, created a charity basketball game and tennis exhibitions, even contracted Cynthia Cooper of the WNBA's Houston Comets to play a $25,000 game of H-O-R-S-E against one of his furniture salespeople.
He brought a bowl game back to Houston. He bought the rights to the U.S. Clay Court tennis championships and moved them to Houston's Westside Tennis Club, which he owns, and where he had already constructed a $3 million practice facility for the Rockets to use for free, writing off the cost as advertising. He sponsored Wrestlemania XVII.
"We ran thousands of TV and radio ads that said an event as big as Wrestlemania could only be brought to Houston by Gallery Furniture," McIngvale says, rolling down the highway in his modest SUV. "We sold lots of furniture. It was good. Wasn't quite as good as the football game, but it was good."
All of this for a total investment of about $20 million, the price of a halftime sponsorship at the Super Bowl. Mac estimates he has earned all of it back in ticket revenue from the events he has promoted. Meanwhile, the ancillary marketing benefits may well run into the tens of millions.
"Sports has served him very well, to the point where it has become part of his identity, even though I couldn't tell you for sure how he has accomplished it," Lanier says. "It reminds me of Mel Ott of the Giants, who used to have a hitting stance where he lifted his leg way up. Nobody understood how he did it, but he hit the ball like hell."
The relationship with the Rockets has been invaluable. "He really fastened himself to the Rockets at a propitious time," Lanier says. "They were in the midst of winning two NBA championships, and Houston had never had a real champion. He became identified with their success." Sitting behind the Rockets' bench with his wife during home games and even road playoff games — "We scalped tickets; whatever it took" — gave Mac a TV ad each time the camera panned his way. He's that recognizable, and even if he wasn't, that Gallery Furniture clothing would have made the point.
"He's so identified with the team that people think he owns part of it," says his wife, Linda.
Postolos characterizes McIngvale as an important marketing partner. "He's shown it in several ways, some of them conventional and some of them extraordinary, like actually building us a practice facility that has played a major role in terms of attracting players," he says. "Our fans and his customers understand that relationship between his store and the team, and they appreciate it."
Mac says he can't even count the number of times that fans have shown up at the store to tell him they saw him on television cheering for the Rockets. "Then," he says, "they buy furniture."
Nobody blinks an eye when energy heavyweights like Enron and Reliant invest tens of millions of dollars in naming rights for Houston's baseball and football stadiums, except perhaps at the size of the numbers. But Mac owns a single store, not even a chain of them, much less a huge corporation.
The economy of scale isn't there. Gallery's immersion in sports promotion works because of Mac. He's a latter-day Bill Veeck, but on a guerrilla scale. For the Galleryfurniture.com Stakes, he wants to raise the purse to more than a half-million dollars, making it one of the most important 2-year-old races in the country, with the proviso that only female jockeys take part. "Women are our customers," he says.
For the U.S. Clay Courts, he shipped in red clay from France, the same used at the French Open, at a cost of $3 million. He shuttled ticket holders from the parking lot to the courts in his wife's Bentley. "The idea is, if you like the way you're treated at the tennis tournament, you'll get the same kind of treatment at Gallery Furniture," he says. "It was good, because we ran the tournament, but in retrospect we should have been the title sponsor, too. That way, we'd have had a double-whammy."
He may just be getting started. In a two-hour span, Mac reveals plans for high school and college basketball tournaments (one or the other or both to be called the Galleryfurniture.com Classic), an international soccer tournament featuring South American club teams ("The Galleryfurniture.com Challenge"), a non-conference football game ("Maybe LSU against Texas A&M?") with the Gallery Furniture name to be played at Houston's new Reliant Stadium, even a potential Davis Cup tie at Westside. ("I've been assured we're at the top of the list.")
He stands in the foyer at Westside, watching Andy Roddick beat Michael Chang at the French Open on a big-screen TV, rooting hard for Roddick, who won his U.S. Clay Courts a few weeks before. "We're doing a sponsorship deal with him now," he says, as his wife dials up Roddick's parents on her cell phone. He swings by the grass courts to see WTA player Mashona Washington prepare for Wimbledon. Next he visits the Rockets' practice facility, where NBA power forward Shawn Kemp, now a Houston resident, is shooting baskets. "You need to come play for us here," he tells Kemp, then whispers: "He's my boy! Bought $30,000 of furniture from me already."
Mac has no marketing budget, he says, just an eye for opportunity. Maybe it will come next in pro football, where the expansion Texans give him another team to identify himself with. Maybe bowling, where he's looking to be hooked up with the new PBA hierarchy. Another try at a women's tennis tournament would be nice, what with Westside still aglow from the success of the Clay Courts. "I'm a marketing guy, and I could market the WTA in this town," he says.
"Slam, bang! I could fill the seats. I know I could."
As darkness falls, he heads to his ad agency to buy media time for the week. He screens a new commercial, shot from footage at the tennis tournament. Then Mac drives back up I-45 to the store, wearing his Gallery Furniture shirt and his Gallery Furniture hat. It's 7 o'clock, but he's ready to sell furniture.
Bruce Schoenfeld is senior correspondent for SportsBusiness Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.