SBJ/July 15-21, 2013/In Depth

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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