SBJ/20100913/This Weeks Issue

Will ‘Lombardi’ lead big leagues to Broadway?

There forever has been talk about the blending of sports and entertainment marketing, with few real successes. Will Vince Lombardi’s name be enough to bridge the gap?

Whether the forthcoming Broadway production based on the life of the legendary coach is an artistic and critical success has yet to be determined. From a marketing perspective, “Lombardi,” which opens in rehearsal at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York on Sept. 23 and officially opens Oct. 21, faces the same issues that come when any marketer tries to expand a base of loyal consumers.

“It’s a straightforward issue,” said Tony Ponturo, one of the show’s producers, after having similar roles in the musicals “Memphis” and the revival of “Hair.” “The question is whether sports fans will come to see a Broadway play and whether Broadway fans will come to see a sports-themed Broadway production.”

Having the NFL’s blessing to use its intellectual property, and some of its marketing clout, is probably something only Ponturo could have pulled off after his years with Anheuser-Busch. Ponturo described the arrangement with the NFL as a revenue share after the play breaks even.

For its part, the NFL is showing a “Lombardi” TV ad on some of its asset media; sending e-mail blasts to its fan base; running banner ads on NFL.com; and supplying the play with a Times Square billboard next month. With the cooperation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the league also is filling the theater lobby with Lombardi memorabilia, including a player bench from the 1967 Ice Bowl NFL championship game between Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, as well as a football used in the initial AFL/NFL championship. The Lombardi NFL Championship Trophy also will be displayed at some performances.

Renderings show NFL design concepts for the
lobby at Circle in the Square Theatre, where
“Lombardi” opens Oct. 21.

The cast and others involved with “Lombardi” went to Green Bay to meet with Packers fans, and that trip was turned into a five-minute feature on the NFL Network. There also will be jointly licensed merchandise at the theater and on NFLshop.com.

Since Lombardi was an assistant coach with the New York Giants before taking over in Green Bay, the New York team is helping with in-game marketing at New Meadowlands Stadium, including via scoreboard advertising. During the Giants’ final home exhibition game, cast members made appearances at the stadium.

Ponturo’s Leverage Agency is selling sponsorships to the play, mostly centered on opening night involvement, along with additional tickets, hospitality and possible incremental content opportunities.

A successful theatrical production about sports is unusual, but it is not unprecedented. “Damn Yankees” ran for more than 1,000 performances after its 1955 Broadway opening.

While Lombardi is a singular character, another intriguing issue is whether the play’s success could create a new theatrical genre. Would life stories of John Wooden, Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali play on Broadway?

“Of course it gets down to how compelling audiences feel the play is,” said Gary Stevenson, an investor in the play (one of a group of investors from the sports and marketing community, according to Ponturo, who would not reveal any other names). “There is a feeling among everyone involved that we are pioneering something.”

Recall that Disney didn’t push its well-protected intellectual property onto Broadway until 1994. Now, it’s almost automatic for any new and successful Disney film to be considered for the stage.

“I’ve had very preliminary discussions with people from some of the other big leagues,” Ponturo said. “With a nod and a wink, they tell me that if ‘Lombardi’ is successful, maybe they’re next.”

“I don’t see it as automatic that if you’re a sports fan you will go to a Broadway play about sports,” said Meg Meurer Brossy, senior vice president of new business development at BrightLine iTV and the former managing director of new business development for the League of American Theatres and Producers, a consortium of theater owners. “However, the NFL connection adds a lot of credibility for NFL fans, and if it’s successful, producers will be more likely to back similar productions.”

“Lombardi” debuts during a renaissance of interest in the coach, who won five NFL titles, some 40 years after his death. In addition to the play, an HBO/NFL Films documentary about Lombardi is scheduled to debut in December. ESPN Films has a Lombardi film starring Robert DeNiro in development that is slated to premiere in 2012.

“Lots of NFL fans don’t know anything about the man whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy,” Ponturo said. “Lombardi’s story is one about hard work and succeeding without shortcuts, and we are at a time when back-to-basics just resonates.”

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