SBJ/June 10 - 16, 2002/Opinion

Good PR doesn't have to break the bank

Not everything makes sense in today's sports marketing scene. While viewership of sports on television is, at best, mixed, sponsorship rights fees for many of these events continue to rise. As a result, some companies are questioning whether they are getting their money's worth by being associated with mega events, and small to medium-sized companies often feel that they don't have the money muscle for even a small sports marketing program.

But with a little creativity, small to medium-sized companies can structure very successful sports marketing/publicity programs without breaking the bank by spending the big bucks necessary for sponsorship of such world-class events as the Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, Masters and the Final Four. The key is knowing what is attractive to the media and making sure that your program has a realistic built-in news element.

In fact, a company can have an effective sports marketing/publicity program even without sponsoring a sport. Depending on the product line and marketing objective, a sports physician, sports psychologist, athlete or coach can be the catalyst for a very successful program. What's necessary is to develop newsworthy talking points that would interest the media, thus giving a spokesperson "a horse to ride."

Many corporate marketing executives that I worked with in years past were reluctant to try something new and would insist that a current "big star" was a necessity for a successful sports marketing program. I always felt that this was not true and insisted that often a retired athlete makes the preferable spokesperson, not only for corporations with limited budgets but also for the big spenders.

The media love stories about the "good old days" of sports, I reasoned, so why not provide people who could talk about it — the retired athletes. And very important: Retired athletes usually are more reasonable when working out financial deals and, because they are not limited by training and game-day routines, they are much easier to schedule for events.

Example: When I was managing public relations for Gillette's sponsorship of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game fan election in the 1970s and '80s, (at Burson-Marsteller, the big international public relations firm where I was senior vice president/sports marketing), a skeptical but cooperative client gave me the rope to test my theory that we should use retired athletes as national spokesmen to publicize the program. "It's our rope but your neck," I was told. "If you think you can make it work, give it a try. But you better make it work."

Leo Durocher remained an effective corporate spokesman long after his playing days were over.

I selected Leo Durocher, the famous Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants manager, to be the first spokesman. It resulted in so much favorable identification for Gillette that we used the same technique for eight years, until Gillette discontinued sponsoring the fan election. Other retired players who spread the Gillette fan election message included Lefty Gomez, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner and Ted Williams.

Using retired star athletes as product and corporate publicists is now a staple of many sports marketing programs (and the savings to the sponsors can be substantial if the athlete is carefully chosen). But using retired athletes 30 years ago was considered a gamble, maybe even revolutionary for national campaigns, and scoffed at by the great majority of corporate marketing, advertising and public relations bigwigs.

As we know, that thinking has dramatically changed. The explosive growth of all-sports talk radio programs has given savvy low-budget marketers the ability to conduct local, regional and national sports marketing programs at a fraction of the cost necessary for buying rights and building an advertising and public relations program for the big-name events. Retired athletes are the perfect fit for these sports talk programs and also for sports print media feature writers.

Another way companies with limited budgets can get into the sports marketing mix is by creating their own sports marketing vehicles. By developing its own program and tying it to a good cause, a company can achieve national publicity without having to pay high rights fees to sports organizations.

Example: Some years back, also at Burson-Marsteller, St. Regis Paper Co. wanted publicity for its educational games division. I searched the product catalog and zeroed in on a game called "Math Baseball," which consisted of simple, early grade math problems on flash cards. Depending on the difficulty, the player either "hit" a single, double, triple or home run.

We arranged for hall of famer Monte Irvin, then with the baseball commissioner's office, to be the "Math Baseball Commissioner" and talk about how youngsters can have fun while learning math. Many major league teams wanted to support this education message in their community and volunteered players, at no cost, as local commissioners.

The program was a great success and resulted in both national and local publicity for St. Regis. Creating a wholly owned "good feeling" sports marketing vehicle like "Math Baseball" can result in major publicity for a company without breaking the bank.

Fees paid to retired athletes have risen since Gillette first used them to promote MLB's All-Star Game fan election. But brand and corporate image managers can still save a bundle of money by using a retired athlete who has not been in the public spotlight for a number of years to spread the publicity message.

Here are some general guidelines for companies that don't have the budgets to support major sports marketing advertising and public relations efforts and want to rely on spokespersons to gain publicity and media recognition for their products.

 Select a spokesperson from a sport that is recognized by the media and covered year-round. Give the media a sport they like to cover. Don't try to be a trailblazer by sponsoring a "sport" like mud wrestling.

 If a sports marketing program will be primarily a publicity vehicle, it's better to own a small program than to be a partner in a large one. It's difficult for the media to mention corporate names and products when two or more companies share a program.

 Select a sport or athlete that projects your company's image. The better a sport fits with its sponsor, the easier it is to get positive publicity.

 Finally, don't be blinded by your own preference. You might be an avid golfer or mountain climber, but you must always consider your target audience when selecting a sport.

Arthur Solomon is president of Arthur Solomon Communications, a Scarsdale, N.Y., public relations firm. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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