SBJ/July 15-21, 2013/In Depth

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  • NFL goes all in on ‘Draft Day’

    Anyone paying close attention at the NFL draft in April may have noticed something was not quite right.

    One of the draft prospects walking around looked just like Texans running back Arian Foster.

    During breaks in the proceedings, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could be seen emoting away from the ESPN and NFL Network cameras, as if he were in a Shakespeare play.

    Running back Arian Foster arrives on the red carpet at the NFL Draft as character Ray Jennings.
    Photo by: Dale Robinette / Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
    Representatives manning the phones at Radio City Music Hall for the 32 NFL clubs wore the same clothes during the draft for three straight days in New York.

    Turns out Radio City wasn’t only the site of the 2013 NFL draft; it simultaneously served as the set of a movie titled “Draft Day,” starring Kevin Costner and directed by Ivan Reitman, expected to be released by Lionsgate in 2014.

    It can be argued that in the history of cinema, there has never been more cooperation between a major U.S. sports league and a major motion picture studio than the filming of “Draft Day.” The fictionalized movie focuses on 36 hours around the Cleveland Browns making a draft selection. The NFL’s consent was not just essential to the producers’ goal of making the film authentic — “Draft Day” would not have been green-lighted without it.

    “The fact is, without the NFL’s blessing, production never would have started,” said Ali Bell, one of the film’s producers. “It couldn’t have been done without them, and they turned out to be the best partners we ever could have hoped for.”

    The producers started their approach to the NFL last August with a pair of phone calls to Tracy Perlman, the league’s vice president of entertainment marketing and promotions. The first was an appeal from Reitman, well-known for directing hit films such as “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Kindergarten Cop.” According to Perlman, Reitman said he wanted the movie to be “authentic to the core” and he wanted to tell movie studios that the NFL was on board.

    The other call was from Costner.


    “It was memorable,” Perlman said. “He told me that this script needed to be made into a movie, that he really wanted to be in it, and that he hoped the NFL would work with them because it had the potential to be great.”

    Costner also showed his passion for the project by traveling to London to make his pitch to NFL Chief Marketing Officer Mark Waller during the Patriots-Rams game at Wembley Stadium last October.

    As all sports leagues require, the NFL wanted assurances that the league and the game would be reflected well before signing up to cooperate.

    “Leagues are protective of their brands and want to vet everything,” said Chip Namias, a former PR executive with three NFL teams and now the president of Los Angeles-based Athlete and Event Sports Public Relations, which has worked on “Draft Day” and other sports films. “For the NFL to go to the lengths it did to allow access to its people, its teams and its marks, assurances were needed.”

    Three months after Perlman was first contacted by the producers, and after script reviews by many NFL executives, including some from the legal department, the NFL decided to give unprecedented access to Reitman and his crew. Goodell was kept informed each step of the process and approved the small part he plays in the production.

    “The story of the movie goes far beyond football and is more about personal relationships,” Perlman said. “We embraced the project.”

    The NFL made suggestions to improve authenticity. For example, a team official played by Jennifer Garner originally was slated to be at Radio City Music Hall for the draft, but the league pointed out that in reality she would be at the team’s “draft war room” back in the team’s city, not actually at the draft.

    Scenes have been shot in the offices of several NFL clubs, including the Browns — who feature most prominently in the film — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. The league controls all national deals when it comes to team trademarks, and all team and league marks were made available. The original script centered around the Buffalo Bills, but Ohio offered tax breaks for the production that made Cleveland a more affordable option.

    Actor Frank Langella portrays fictional Cleveland Browns owner "Harvey Molina."
    Photo by: Dale Robinette / Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
    As a bonus to NFL sponsors, including General Motors, Pepsi and Gatorade, their products will receive visibility in the movie at no cost.

    “These are our exclusive partners,” Perlman said. “If NFL people, places and marks were going to be utilized in the movie, our sponsors should be part of it, too.”

    The three days of the draft in New York were referred to by Reitman as “guerrilla filmmaking.” The NFL was not going to stage a fake draft at Radio City Music Hall once the real one concluded. Everything that Reitman needed had to be done at the draft.

    “There was no time for re-shoots,” Perlman said.

    Among the draft scenes was a fictional exchange between NFL Network broadcasters Rich Eisen, Deion Sanders and Mike Mayock about a draft choice made in the movie. Reitman urged the trio to throw the script out and improvise. When they did and Reitman said “Cut,” he also added, “That was amazing.”

    So was the performance of Foster, who beat out more than two dozen actors to play the supporting role of Ray Jennings, one of the draft picks. To this point, Foster’s acting career had been limited to a cameo on the new version of “Hawaii Five-0.” Eagle-eyed fans at Radio City were confused to see the 26-year-old Foster, well into a superb NFL career, anxiously waiting to be “drafted.”

    The final scenes of “Draft Day” were completed last week. The film will be in theaters next year, although a specific date has yet to be decided. Lionsgate is considering dates when it can best optimize publicity from the NFL season.

    “Draft Day” will not be the easiest movie to sell. It does not feature a bankable star in his prime, the kind of actor who can “open” a movie. But neither did “42,” which starred Chadwick Boseman in the leading role of Jackie Robinson and went on to gross nearly $100 million in the U.S. and make a huge profit. Boseman is also in “Draft Day.”

    What Bell and the rest of the producers of “Draft Day” believe their movie has in common with “42” and “The Blind Side” — another rare sports movie hit, with over $250 million in domestic grosses — is a story that transcends sports. What separates “Draft Day” from the rest is the high level of cooperation the film received from the major sports league it depicts.

    “I don’t have a sports movie on my desk right now, but I’d love to work with the NFL again,” Bell said. “It has been an incredible experience. We think we have something special with this movie.”

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  • ‘Turbo’ offers outlet for revved-up marketing

    Cutting a marketing agreement with a movie studio can be the most painless deal in sports. Just ask Sunoco, Firestone or Verizon.

    Those companies collectively spend millions on their sponsorship of the Izod IndyCar Series, but the exposure they will get in DreamWorks’ newest animated film, “Turbo,” which opens this week, cost them next to nothing. It only required marketing commitments that give “Turbo” enough impressions to justify featuring Sunoco fueling stations, Firestone tires and a Verizon-branded car in the film.

    Driver Tony Kanaan poses with the Turbo character and his Sunoco/Turbo-themed race car.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    “I don’t know if I would say this was luck because we all take our position in motorsports seriously, but sometimes these opportunities present themselves and they can be great for your brand,” said Drew Kabakoff, Sunoco’s director of brand marketing. “It’s too early to tell what it will do for the [Sunoco] brand but it’s been exciting for employees and customers.”

    Kabakoff and others this week will begin getting a sense of the value their DreamWorks partnership delivers. “Turbo” opens in theaters Wednesday, and Box Office Mojo expects it to gross more than $300 million worldwide.
    It’s only real box office competition in the children’s animated film genre comes from “Despicable Me 2,” which took in $142 million its first weekend after opening July 3.

    DreamWorks, which made the “Shrek” films, developed the idea for “Turbo” in-house more than two years ago. The studio wanted to tell the animated, children’s story of a snail that dreams of being a great racer who is fast enough to win the Indianapolis 500. But to tell that story, it needed the rights to animate the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the big screen.

    Randy Bernard, who at the time was IndyCar’s CEO, jumped at the idea because he saw an opportunity not only to expose the sport but also its sponsors. He traded rights to feature the Indy 500 in the film for exposure in a movie that could be seen by more than 20 million people worldwide. He also told DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg that the film really needed to feature sponsors because they’re integral to the Indianapolis 500.

    Katzenberg balked.

    “He said, ‘No way. I’ve never allowed sponsorship in my movies in the past,’” Bernard recalled, recently. “I said,
    ‘You can really use this to capitalize in the marketing.’”

    Katzenberg remained firmly opposed to the idea until he attended the 2010 Indy 500. He looked around at the sponsor logos emblazoned on cars and saw corporate signage around the track. He realized the film needed sponsors to be authentic.

    “He found me after the race and he goes, ‘Hey, I get it. This will be the first movie we have with sponsorship,’” Bernard said.

    DreamWorks determined which sponsors would be in the race. Bernard asked that the studio focus on brands that are in the IndyCar Series. He and his sales team invited all of the series’ sponsors to Los Angeles for a meeting about the film. They pitched them on the opportunity and then turned over negotiations to DreamWorks, which wanted sponsors to guarantee a certain amount of marketing support for the film and a total number of impressions.

    Sunoco, Firestone, AAA, Verizon and General Motors signed on for the project without even reading the script. HP, which sponsors the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car and has a business relationship with DreamWorks, committed to the film, as well.

    Each sponsor received a mix of assets that included exposure in the film, movie tickets and premiere passes.
    “It’s about reaching the consumers in different touch points,” said Linda Kehn, DreamWorks’ head of national promotions. “We will do our own TV campaign and advertising, but these partnerships allow us to reach out in a unique way. Going into a Firestone dealership or AAA are unique opportunities to reach more consumers than we have with our traditional marketing.”

    Sunoco has been promoting “Turbo” since late May. The company, which is located on the East Coast, has 5,000 locations with “Turbo” signage and fountain cups and has plugged a “Turbo” logo into its commercials. It sponsored IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan’s car for five races this year because there will be a No. 60 Sunoco car in the film.

    Firestone launched a promotional offer in May around the film. The tire manufacturer’s service stations began offering consumers who bought four Firestone tires a $50 “Turbo”-branded MasterCard, four movie tickets and a concession voucher. It put “Turbo” signage in the stations and put a “Turbo” logo at the end of its TV commercials.
    It complemented those promotions with two sweepstakes. The first, which ended April 30, offered a trip to the Indianapolis 500. The second, which ends in August, offers a trip on a DreamWorks cruise line. More than 600,000 people entered the two sweepstakes, making it the company’s most successful sweepstakes effort, said Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone and Firestone vice president of consumer marketing.

    Stores also reported significant traffic for the “Turbo” ticket offer. Said Pacsi, “We don’t have our numbers in yet; there’s a redemption process. But the reaction we’re getting in the stores is a lot of people are coming in and asking about the promotion. That’s very exciting.”

    Verizon allowed DreamWorks to reach a very different audience. The company promoted “Turbo Racing League,” a kids game that’s available on smartphones. AAA is selling discounted “Turbo” tickets at its branches, and General Motors developed a 30-second animated television spot that has been translated into a variety of languages for international promotion.

    Sunoco, Firestone and General Motors also promoted the film with “Turbo”-themed displays at IndyCar races, but the emphasis and the value for DreamWorks was really away from the track.

    “It’s a big initiative for all of these brands, and that’s why they’re taking it beyond the racetrack,” said Kasey Coler, IndyCar’s vice president of marketing.

    IndyCar is trying to capitalize on the film, as well. It developed a sticker book that will be handed out at more than 230 theaters in markets ranging from Los Angeles and Chicago to San Francisco and Charlotte. The book includes stickers of “Turbo” characters, Will Powers’ No. 12 Chevrolet and IndyCar logos. More than 500,000 will be given out, and they all direct recipients to a microsite that IndyCar launched with games and information on the film.

    Series executives have high hopes for the film. The series is hosting its second full staff meeting of the year at a movie theater this week. More than 300 IndyCar and IMS employees will gather to get a recap on this year’s Indy 500 and an update on plans for speedway improvements. Then they will watch the movie.

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  • Ron Howard’s latest movie project recalls a classic F1 rivalry

    Unlike “Draft Day” director Ivan Reitman, Ron Howard did not seek a partnership with Formula One for his film “Rush,” which depicts the rivalry of F1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the mid-1970s. In an email exchange with reporter Christopher Botta, Howard shared some thoughts on sports movies and the making of “Rush,” which is scheduled for release in September.

    Director Ron Howard (left) visits Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone and actor Michael Douglas prior to the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix in May.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    What was your relationship with F1 and CEO/President Bernie Ecclestone while you were making “Rush”?
    HOWARD: There was no formal cooperation required or requested, but Bernie gave [screenwriter] Peter Morgan and I an interview two years ago at Silverstone. Since then, Bernie has been very welcoming when Peter or I show up at a race. Bernie even invited me onto the grid a couple of times, which was beyond courteous. I’ve certainly come to respect immensely what he and his team have done to corral and create the amazing apparatus that is modern F1, but we’ve had no business dealings with Bernie or F1.

    What is it that you like best about F1 and hoped to capture in your film?

    HOWARD: I love the showmanship and excitement around the sport. I really hope the expansion into the U.S. continues. The race in Austin was great, and the hope for a New Jersey race is still alive, I’m told. That would be an event not to be missed. My fingers are crossed.

    F1 is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in many other parts of the world. Did that make “Rush” a difficult movie to get green-lighted?
    HOWARD: Because it was such a strong screenplay and the sport is so important in many regions of the world, the movie came together quickly. There was also a freshness about the project and it offered a lot of creative opportunities to the people involved, so everyone treated it as a labor of love. The budget [an estimated $38 million] was as lean and responsible as it could be while still delivering on the promise of the movie and the world we were re-creating.

    This is your second sports film, after “Cinderella Man” in 2005. What do you believe makes an artistically successful sports movie?
    HOWARD: To demonstrate something compelling and revealing about the human experience, you also have to have a respect for the sport and an application of the dynamics of the competition.

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  • Story of beating the odds too good to pass up

    Hollywood producer Mark Ciardi’s credits include inspirational sports films such as “Miracle,” “Invincible” and “The Rookie.’’ Ciardi’s career as a pitcher plateaued after four appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987, so he’s familiar with the universal sports theme of overcoming insurmountable odds.

    Nonetheless, when Ciardi first heard the story on which his next film is based, he rejected it. It’s the story of a reality show seeking the hardest throwing cricket “bowler” in India. The winner would receive $100,000 and have an opportunity to fly west and become the first Indian to play pro baseball in America. “I thought the idea was crazy,” Ciardi said. “Since I played baseball, I understand the odds of making it. So I wished [them] good luck and moved on.”

    The story follows cricket players Dinesh Patel (left) and Rinku Singh and their attempt to pitch their way to Major League Baseball.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    Six years later, Ciardi was speaking to SportsBusiness Journal from the Atlanta set where Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” is being filmed. The universal theme of overcoming insurmountable odds had again proved irresistible for a filmmaker.

    The movie is scheduled for release next year and stars “Mad Men” protagonist Jon Hamm along with veteran actor Alan Arkin and two Indian actors familiar to the American film audience: “Slumdog Millionaire” star Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma from “Life of Pi.”

    The “Million Dollar Arm” concept was the brainchild of Jeff “JB” Bernstein, the former Major League Soccer licensing chief who is more familiar to the sports marketing world as the marketing agent for the likes of Barry Bonds, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. As the increasing number of international players in the NBA created unprecedented growth for that league in China and Europe, Bernstein wondered if he could replicate that success in India.

    “I wanted to find my ‘Yao Ming’ and got the thought to do something like ‘American Idol’ in another country with a huge population,” said Bernstein, portrayed by Hamm in the movie. “With all the cricket players, I knew India would have the raw talent.”

    Bernstein secured funding from Will Chang, minority owner of the San Francisco Giants and D.C. United;
    succeeded in getting a “Million Dollar Arm” reality show on India’s Zee TV; and started setting up cameras and grassroots competitions next to cricket ovals across India.

    The reality show began airing in 2007, and 37,000 players competed, leading up to the finals in 2008. Rinku Singh, a 6-foot-2 lefthander from Lucknow, won the $100,000 first prize. At the time, Singh’s father earned $25 a week as a truck driver. Dinesh Patel finished second.

    While neither Singh nor Patel had heard of or seen a baseball, much less a baseball game, they knew how to throw with velocity. Bernstein brought the pair to America, where they trained with coach and former major league pitcher Tom House. In front of MLB scouts, Singh threw faster than 90 mph.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates signed them for $10,000 bonuses each, and on July 4, 2009, wearing the uniform of the Bradenton (Fla.) Gulf Coast Pirates, the pair of reality show winners became the first Indians to play American pro baseball. Twelve days later, when Singh because the first Indian pitcher to win a pro game in the U.S., his teammates had to explain to him what that accomplishment meant.

    Patel was released by the Pirates in December 2010 and returned to India. Singh was promoted to the Pirates’ Class A teams in State College, Pa., and Charleston, W.Va., and also has pitched in Australia and the Dominican Republic during the offseasons. He is recovering from a bone bruise and is doing rehab assignments in Bradenton but should pitch later this summer, Bernstein said.

    On the “Million Dollar Arm” set in Atlanta, Jeff “JB” Bernstein (foreground) poses with actor Madhur Mittal (left), Patel, Singh and actor Suraj Sharma. Bernstein developed the concept for a reality show that tested the pitching skills of Indian cricket players.
    Photo by: Mark Ciardi
    Like any prospect, whether Singh, 24, will eventually play Major League Baseball is unclear. “I can’t tell you the future,” Singh said, “but I can tell you that I will keep working hard as I have been, so then it’s not going to take long.”

    He may soon be joined by other Indian players, as well. A similar contest and reality show in 2011 attracted 200,000 entrants and another is planned for 2014. Noting the popularity of a grassroots skills contest in a country where baseball had been invisible, MLB International lent its support after the first contest. With MLB on board for use of IP, future iterations of the contest will be called “MLB Million Dollar Arm.”

    Several sponsors have also taken note. Under Armour has a product deal with the movie, along with Singh and Patel, and Disney is selling other sponsorships. Wilson, Upper Deck and Topps also have deals with Singh and Patel.

    Ciardi said that while “Miracle” and his other films were traditional inspirational sports dramas, “Million Dollar Arm” is different. The story is told from Bernstein’s perspective and centers on JB’s transformation, as the pair of Indian expats initially frustrate but then eventually inspire JB to a catharsis.

    “Any great sports movie is not really about sports,” Ciardi said. “This film is about a man’s growth and finding a family he didn’t know he was looking for. That kind of redemptive arc in a character happens in any great movie.”

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  • Why leagues connect to entertainment world

    The relationship between sports and entertainment has never been closer. Professional sports leagues and governing bodies are approaching this intersection in a vastly different manner than in years past.

    Previously, a major music star would perform the national anthem at the Super Bowl or NBA All-Star Game, but

    now a variety of star musicians can be found performing at various events held by many of the sports leagues and governing bodies. Sports league trademarks, clips, themes and athletes used to appear periodically on television shows and in film; now, dedicated strategic efforts by sports leagues identify opportunities for this seamless integration. But, why?

    “For NASCAR, our entertainment extensions are born out of necessity,” said Zane Stoddard, NASCAR’s vice president of entertainment marketing, who held a similar position at the NBA prior to joining NASCAR. “There’s less of an affinity for NASCAR with certain demographics we’d like to reach. So, we have to be more proactive.”

    Thus, NASCAR created a five-year action plan with the focus on reaching three target audiences: youth, Gen Y and multicultural. The plan has three main points of focus:

    Driver integration: NASCAR places drivers into existing programs and events. By way of example, Brad
    NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski (center) poses with the cast of “Sullivan & Son.”
    Photo by: NASCAR
    Keselowski recently shot an episode of “Sullivan & Son” that will air this month on TBS. As well, they placed Danica Patrick on Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards held this past March.

    Original projects: NASCAR is actively working with Hollywood to partner with top producers on the creation of scripted dramas as well as unscripted series. This fall, “Flat Out,” an unscripted series co-produced by NASCAR Productions and Michael Eisner’s digital content studio, Vuguru, will premiere on AOL’s On Network. NASCAR also this year developed a Spanish-language digital soap opera for Univision.com that features a female race car driver caught in a love triangle with a pair of racing brothers.

    Event experiences at the track: They brought star rappers T.I. and 50 Cent to the Daytona 500 and will have the cast of the film “Grown Ups 2” at an upcoming event.

    One of the ways the NHL looks to leverage entertainment is to attach A-List stars to send a message about the importance and relevance of the event, according to Charles Coplin, the league’s executive vice president of content, who joined the NHL after overseeing six Super Bowl halftime shows for the NFL. At the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa, Canadian-born hip-hop star Drake, a big hockey fan, performed for the NHL at the sport’s premiere showcase in his home country. At the NHL Winter Classic in Philadelphia, Patti LaBelle and The Roots
    Actor Vince Vaughn presents an award at the 2012 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    took center stage, and at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, Vince Vaughn and other Hollywood stars brought new glitter to the event.

    The NFL has a different philosophical approach to its strategy in the entertainment space. Despite the league’s stature, boasting ratings far beyond the closest competitor, Tracy Perlman, vice president of entertainment programming for the NFL, explains: “We don’t expect you to come to us … we want to be part of your culture.”

    The NFL hosts two annual entertainment summits in New York and Los Angeles during the summer prior to writing season, in order to meet with producers to share the league’s current initiatives to see if there are potential tie-in opportunities.

    Some examples of the NFL’s strategic integration plans include the NFL Fantasy Football referenced on “The Office,” the Colts’ guest role in “Parks and Rec,” the Cleveland Browns’ appearance on “How I Met Your Mother,” and NFL players featured on “The Biggest Loser” promoting the NFL’s Play 60 fitness platform. With a national public concern over bullying, the NFL has positioned four players on the upcoming show “Characters Unite” on USA Network, where the players will go to the schools and help to resolve bullying issues.

    With respect to the big screen, Perlman says that the NFL is very selective and will only support and participate in
    projects that are consistent with the league’s principles. She says that in “Silver Linings Playbook,” the NFL did not have a very active role, noting that the league was not the story line, but served as a unifier. “In that film, the Philadelphia Eagles brought the family together, which is consistent with our goal of bringing family and friends together.” However, with “Draft Day,” the NFL is fully engaged in many aspects of the film, including providing the production access to NFL-controlled venues to shoot the film, featuring Commissioner Roger Goodell and other NFL staff and fully integrating NFL sponsors (see related story).

    While the other leagues appear to have less of an active strategic push for player integration into television shows, the NFL and NASCAR have strong, dedicated efforts. And while the NFL wants to be everywhere we are, NASCAR’s efforts are more targeted, with their process anchored by (a) whether a show has the ability to reach any of their primary demographic targets and (b) whether there is an organic way of integrating a driver into the show in a creatively credible manner.

    How long does the process take to get players (or drivers) into existing shows? The process can take anywhere from one to two months from identification of show, pitch, securing the player and story development, according to each of the league contacts.

    One might wonder whether leagues and governing bodies are actually seeing any measurable benefit. According to NASCAR’s Stoddard, the sport has seen a 20 percent increase in Hispanic viewership for Cup races, pointing to the Univision series as a success story and major factor for the increase. As well, NASCAR’s analytics have shown an overall increase in consumption from audiences that had not previously experienced the NASCAR product.

    Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s senior vice president of integrated sales, adds that the star power not only translates to higher ratings (noting ratings spikes during in-game performances), but also provides NHL partners a more valuable product to activate against due to the enhanced profile of the event.

    Perlman notes that while certain relationships generate direct revenue, this revenue is not the driver for participation. For the NFL, the goal is to increase brand awareness and extensions to reach fans 365 days a year.
    That being said, the leagues and governing bodies are able to secure revenue via different sources, depending upon their role in the television shows and films. Whether being a producer, the production services unit or licensing trademarks or copyrighted clips, they are garnering revenue.

    Stay tuned. Your favorite league, team or player is coming to a show near you.

    Derrick Heggans (derrick@roseparkproductions.com) is the CEO of Rose Park Productions (www.roseparkproductions.com), a film sales and distribution company focused on sports. Heggans previously served as media counsel for the NFL, general manager of AOL Sports and managing director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

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  • Athletes find more time in the spotlight

    When Michael Strahan first took over from Regis Philbin as the host of ABC’s syndicated daytime morning show, he and his manager decided they would wait before taking on new projects for his management and entertainment company.

    “What we decided to do when he got the job was to say ‘no’ to everything for a year,” said Constance Schwartz, Strahan’s manager and partner in Los Angeles-based SMAC Entertainment. “We knew this was going to be big, but we had no idea how big the opportunities were.”

    Michael Strahan is a hit as the co-host of ABC’s “Live with Kelly and Michael.”
    Photo by: Getty Images
    Since becoming co-host of “Live with Kelly and Michael” in October, Strahan, a former NFL defensive end who has been a studio host of “The NFL on Fox” since 2008, has established popularity among a different demographic — women ages 25 to 54. The morning show garnered its highest ratings in six years during the May television sweeps.

    It used to be that athletes, when they retired from their sport, had one major opportunity — analyst for a network broadcasting the sport they once played. But that is changing, and one of the reasons why is players like Strahan are becoming known commodities to casual sports fans as well as non-sports fans.

    “Each of these guys are creating their own brands and their own businesses and more than ever they have an appetite to do as much as possible, especially when they retire,” said Josh Pyatt, an agent for non-scripted television at entertainment agency WME. “I think people like Michael Strahan have broken the walls down.”

    Athletes are being aided by the rise in media outlets that need content, not just on television but on the Internet and on mobile devices, and as more entertainment agencies extend their reach into sports. And, with the explosion of social media, athletes are becoming media personalities known to more people outside of fans of their teams or their sport.

    “As people start to see their personality, athletes will have increasing opportunities and will be able to diversify their platforms, not just from the broadcasting booth, but from multiple channels,” said Dhani Jones, a former NFL
    linebacker who is hosting two shows on Spike TV.

    “Strahan is doing network TV, both in a sports vein and with pop culture, ‘Live with Kelly and Michael,’” Jones said. “I mean, look at that [Strahan’s shows]. That is the ultimate diverse platform. That crosses all boundaries.”

    Jones knows Strahan well, as the two were teammates on the New York Giants in the early 2000s. Strahan was a mentor to Jones, not only on the field, but in giving Jones advice with his own aspirations to do television and entertainment work.

    Even back then, “Michael was doing stuff all over television,” Jones said. “So as I approached Strahan, I tried to tag along and ask his advice on how to do more and ask him how he did what he did. And he helped me to be able to do some things through his relationships.”

    Jones has since hosted, produced or pitched through his production company, 2013 Productions, more than a dozen shows, including non-sports lifestyle shows such as “Dhani Tackles the Globe,” which ran on the Travel Channel in 2009 and 2010. Jones is currently the host of “GT Academy” and “Playbook 360” on Spike TV. Additionally, through his production company, Jones recently sold three pilots to VH1, Bravo and Versus.

    Now it’s Jones who often hears from former and current athletes who want advice on how to break into entertainment.

    “This is what I am saying to guys who are on the field: If this is something you want to do, you definitely have to do well within the game,” Jones said. If they achieve that, he said, there is a lot more work to do if they want to get into entertainment.

    Strahan's former teammate, Dhani Jones, is building a solid entertainment portfolio of his own.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    That work includes building new relationships and teams in the entertainment world, Jones said. For entertainment work, Jones is managed by Jerry Silbowitz at Size Sports & Entertainment and his agent is Ryan Hayden at United Talent Agency.

    “It definitely takes incredible partnerships,” Jones said. “I don’t think anybody comes into the television industry and says, ‘Here, this is my idea, can you make this show happen?’”

    Those partnerships include many of the entertainment companies that have been entering the sports business in a small way for several decades and now are major players in sports. That includes Creative Artists Agency, which started a sports talent representation practice, CAA Sports, in 2006 by hiring veteran sports playing agents.

    “When CAA was announced that they were going to get into sports, I think the common thought was, ‘All right, is that just an opportunity for an athlete who is going to make a cameo in somebody’s music video or television show?’” said Lowell Taub, a sports marketing agent who joined CAA in 2007 and is now global head of sports endorsements. “And of course those do happen. But CAA did it because it was a diversification of our opportunities.”

    CAA now represents more than 700 athletes in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA, as well as in individual and Olympic sports. Since CAA represents writers, directors and producers of television, film and digital entertainment, it touts its ability to match its athlete clients with entertainment projects. Many athlete clients of the agency are involved in book projects, documentaries, reality shows and motion pictures — and not just in cameos appearing as themselves.

    Snowboarder Shaun White showed a comedic bent in “Friends with Benefits” in 2010 and mixed martial arts star Georges St-Pierre was cast as the villain Batroc in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

    CAA client Ryan Lochte had a reality show on E!, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do,” which debuted in April, and another Olympic client, Sanya Richards-Ross, has a reality show that will debut on WE TV on July 25.

    CAA is exploring other entertainment opportunities for its clients, including mobile apps and video games. Among the clients who have games or apps are Adrian Peterson, Tony Gonzalez, Buster Posey and St-Pierre. “For athletes who are now full day-to-day pop culture touchstones and icons, those doors have opened and a lot of that, obviously, is digitally,” Taub said.

    Another entertainment agency that is representing more athletes for entertainment work is WME. Unlike CAA, WME does not represent athletes for on-the-field work. But WME counts retired linebackers Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis among recent clients it has signed for broadcasting and entertainment work.

    WME signed Lewis in 2011 and co-represents him with his NFL playing agent, David Dunn, CEO and founder of Athletes First. After the Ravens won the Super Bowl this year and Lewis retired from the sport, WME landed him a broadcast deal with ESPN. But that was only the first step of Lewis’s post-playing career plans. WME is now pitching a non-sports show for Lewis that would show the future Hall of Fame linebacker in a new light.

    “He has some reality show ideas that he is going to take out that will not be targeted to a sports kind of network,” Pyatt said. “It will be more towards an entertainment network where he is able to accomplish some of the things he is passionate about.”

    In sports, athletes are often represented by a playing contract agent and a marketing agent who may or may not work for the same agency. In entertainment, talent is usually represented by an agent and a manager. WME agents represent Strahan.

    Strahan’s management company, SMAC Entertainment, represents athletes other than Strahan for entertainment work, including CAA client Gonzalez and Deion Sanders, as well as Sanders’ alter ego and NFL Network personality, Leon Sandcastle. SMAC Entertainment is talking to the NFL about a sitcom or a movie featuring Sandcastle, Schwartz said.

    SMAC, which is also co-owned by Mark Sudak, a music industry executive, has received a number of offers for projects due to Strahan’s success in crossing over to a new audience.

    “The priority for Michael is to really build out the production company,” Schwartz said, “And I would say, in the next six months, we will have some really good announcements.”

    Schwartz would not reveal details about the projects but said one is a documentary and others involve scripted and non-scripted television shows, with and without a sports theme.

    Meanwhile, SMAC Entertainment’s client list could be expanding soon, as a number of athletes have been calling Schwartz and Strahan about managing them for entertainment projects. No surprise, the agency is looking for the proverbial “it factor.”

    “Just because someone has a million Twitter followers and is popular and rushes for a hundred yards a game doesn’t mean they are a brand,” Schwartz said. “How do you describe what Dhani has or Deion or Tony or Michael has? It’s like just they have ‘it.’”

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  • Good sports stories, but will Broadway bite?

    Recalling a memorable sports film is about as easy as buying a movie ticket. From “Pride of the Yankees” (1942) and “The Hustler” (1961) to those of more recent vintage, like “Slap Shot” (1977) and “The Blind Side” (2009), there have been dozens of indelible sports flicks.

    Now, try to remember a theatrical play about sports. Your recollections probably begin and end with “Damn Yankees,” a musical comedy that ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway after its opening in 1955.

    Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo are ready to play ball with their latest production, “Bronx Bombers,” which will hit the stage in September.
    Photo by: Terry Lefton
    Former Anheuser-Busch media/sports marketing chief Tony Ponturo is trying to change that. Long a Broadway aficionado, Ponturo followed up stints as a producer of “Memphis” (a musical that won four Tony Awards) and the 2009 revival of “Hair,” with a penchant for plays about sports, conceived by his partner, Fran Kirmser.

    The first was “Lombardi,” a look inside the life of the Green Bay Packers coach, which lasted for 244 performances on Broadway, from October 2010 until May 2011. It was not profitable and apparently not aided by the Packers winning the Super Bowl during the show’s run.

    Within a year, the production team of Ponturo and Kirmser mounted homage to NBA stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. “Magic/Bird’’ opened on Broadway on April 11, 2012, and closed May 12, 2012, after 38 performances.

    Undeterred, the team of Kirmser and Ponturo are working on their next production, “Bronx Bombers,’’ which will debut this year. Still, when you talk to anyone in the business of sports about the intersection of theater and sports, a la Ponturo/Kirmser, they concur with the assessment of veteran sports marketer Gary Stevenson.

    “This is a model that’s still unproven,” said Stevenson, an investor in “Lombardi,” who recently took a senior management position with Major League Soccer. “What’s clear is that selling a ticket to a play is a lot different than selling a ticket to a sporting event. Still, if anyone can do it, it will be Tony.”

    With deep connections forged from when he wielded sports’ largest marketing budget at Anheuser-Busch, Ponturo’s
    “Lombardi” staged 244 performances on Broadway.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    clout led to “Lombardi” and “Magic/Bird” getting marketing support and use of intellectual property from the NFL and NBA. Likewise, “Bronx Bombers” will open with intellectual property rights from and the marketing muscle of both Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees.

    Combining Ponturo’s sports connections with his passion for Broadway hasn’t produced a winner yet. However, that’s not dissuading the production company now known as Kirmser Ponturo Group. As someone who grew up as a fan of the Yankees, when Ponturo talks about “Bronx Bombers,’’ his level of enthusiasm belies the fate of the earlier two plays.

    A travelogue across the Yankees’ 27 championships, “Bronx Bombers” will include nearly every pinstripe legend, from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter. Mindful of the $2.5 million to $3.5 million it takes to open a non-musical on Broadway, “Bronx Bombers” is scheduled to open Sept. 18 for a monthlong run at The Duke on 42nd Street, an off-Broadway Times Square theater that seats around 200. Ponturo said he and Kirmser are deep into casting for the play. Kirmser said it could open in a Broadway theater any time from the 2013 holidays to early February 2014.

    The conundrum of whether a Broadway play about sports should appeal primarily to sports fans or theatergoers is not an easy one, especially considering Kirmser’s declaration that 70 percent of the Broadway audience is women.
    “People tend to think of these plays in terms of the sport they are about,” she said, “but the innards are about leadership, competition, respect and teamwork. You want conflict and resolution — that’s what makes drama for anyone.”

    While Ponturo’s raison d’être of late has been to craft an indelible piece of sports history into a faithful drama, he’s learned not to be too insular.

    “Sports fans are open to sitting through a theatrical piece if they’re learning something,” said Ponturo, inside his firm’s Rockefeller Center offices. “You can’t regurgitate what they already know or can see on ESPN. It’s automatic to us in sports who Lombardi or Mickey Mantle were, but in the theatrical world, I’ve been surprised at how many people don’t know that,” he added, with a laugh. “Of course, there’s the vice versa; I’m not sure how many sports fans know about Godot or Othello.

    “We’re trying to broaden these stories beyond how the theater fan or the sports fan normally relates to them. Then, the audience can relate and think, ‘Hmm … Mantle didn’t have it easy, did he?’ Then you will see them respond.”

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