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Volume 21 No. 43
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Little-known boxer gets his shot with Subway

When light heavyweight boxing prospect Mike Lee first met executives from Subway to discuss endorsement opportunities earlier this year, the fighter came away from the sit-down at a Manhattan Starbucks thinking it was a courtesy call.

Senior writer Bill King on how Mike Lee's Notre Dame connection helped seal the deal, and what's next for the boxer.

Lee and Subway’s chief marketing officer, Tony Pace, both are Notre Dame graduates. With only five pro fights on his résumé at the time, Lee didn’t think it possible the brand would consider him for a campaign that had featured seven-time Pro Bowl participant Michael Strahan, 2006 National League MVP Ryan Howard and New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck.

After the meeting, Lee called his father, John, who handles his business dealings, to check in.

“They’re nice guys, but I don’t expect a call back,” Lee told his father. “I thought it was a nice meet and greet. I took it for that.”

A few hours later, Lee heard back from Subway. They wanted him to fly to Los Angeles for a test shoot.

Subway’s Tony Pace (left) on Mike Lee: “All you have to do is see him train … and you get it.”
Photo by: SUBWAY

“Next thing I know, I’m at Paramount Studios in a makeup chair,” said Lee, whose eighth fight as a pro is scheduled for Saturday at Madison Square Garden, on the non-televised undercard of Miguel Cotto’s pay-per-view bout against Antonio Margarito. “Little did I know that meeting would lead to what we’ve got going on today. It’s been awesome.”

That a boxer landed a speaking role in a national commercial, which was followed by a second and now a third, was surprising, considering the dearth of exposure for fighters in the U.S. That it was a boxer who had only five pro fights to his name when he landed the deal, and who still has only fought on TV once, on ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights,” boggles the mind.

The stable of promoter Top Rank, which signed Lee after he won his class at the Chicago Golden Gloves in 2009, is loaded with far more accomplished fighters, superstars of the sport such as Manny Pacquiao and Cotto. It includes more promising prospects than Lee, who makes less than $10,000 a fight. Yet, other than Pacquiao, none has landed in as visible a campaign as Lee did with Subway.

Subway's Famous Fans Laila Ali
Carl Edwards
Blake Griffin
Ryan Howard
Mike Lee
Nastia Liukin
Apolo Ohno
Michael Phelps
CC Sabathia
Michael Strahan
Justin Tuck
Ndamukong Suh

Source: Subway

“He’s unlike anything that’s out there,” said John Lee, Mike’s father and business manager. “Based on what we see in sports, world champions in boxing should be marketable. But, to corporate America, from what I’m told, they are not.”

The deal germinated, in part, because of Lee’s Notre Dame roots. Pace heard about him from an old ad agency friend, Tom Beusse, the president of the recently created USA Today Sports Media Group, who suggested the two should meet. Pace concedes that their common alma mater may have tipped the scales in favor of having coffee. But he insists Lee’s Notre Dame pedigree got him no further than the Starbucks table.

When they started talking about Lee’s training regimen, and the fact that he was a frequent Subway eater, Pace began to think more seriously about the potential. Subway wanted the image of a boxer for an upcoming spot that highlighted fitness. It was planning to use an actor. But here sat Lee, whose ritualistic routine includes inhaling a foot-long turkey sub after weigh-ins, looking and sounding like a brand ambassador.

Pace decided to give him a shot. When Lee got in front of the camera, he was a natural — so much so that Subway decided to expand his role. On the day before the weigh-in for a fight at Home Depot Center in July, Pace asked if Lee could make it back to the lot to shoot a speaking role. He ended up sharing the spot with Howard, Strahan and Tuck, which debuted during the NFL season opener on NBC.

“We were working with him as a real boxer and now, subsequently, as a famous fan,” Pace said. “He’s got a great physique and a great smile. He’s a fresh face. And he’s on the upswing.

“Would I have him as the sole fan in the spot? No. You have to have some of the more famous fans in there, too. But it’s all about what works. All you have to do is see him train and perform and you get it. All that stuff is good for the brand.”

It’s also good for Lee and, in turn, for boxing. He won’t get Lamborghini-rich from his sandwich spots. While neither Subway executives nor Lee’s camp would discuss specific financials, his father confirmed that, for now, his deal is structured more like that of an actor than a celebrity endorser, meaning most of his money comes from royalties, rather than from a large guarantee. Visibility has been the far greater payoff.

“He’s charismatic and he is doing a great job at rallying a different audience to watch him,” said Lucia McKelvey, executive vice president of business development and marketing and Pacquiao’s deal agent at Top Rank. “He’s getting mainstream. He’s in a commercial, putting his face and his brand next to the NFL. That’s nothing but good for him and it’s good for boxing.”

The Subway spots are the most visible differentiator for Lee, but he has set himself apart in other ways, parlaying his Notre Dame ties, first to sell tickets to his fights on Top Rank’s undercards and, most recently, to create a charity boxing event at his alma mater with Regis Philbin as the emcee.

On the week of the fight, Lee was in Chicago, prepping for a media workout with the TV on in the background, when Philbin mentioned him on his morning show.

“Regis was talking about me on TV, and Kelly Ripa asked if I was the Subway guy,” Lee said, chuckling. “It’s surreal sometimes.”

While most of his fights have been deep down the undercard, Lee has made a striking run of high-profile venues. His third fight was at Cowboys Stadium last November on the undercard of Pacquiao’s fight against Margarito. Now, he is set to play the Garden.

Where he goes from here, at some point, will depend on how he fares against better competition. Each time Pace speaks with John Lee, he jabs him with a good-natured reference to the unpredictable nature of the fight game.

“Mike has all those abilities that we look for,” Pace said. “And he better win in December.”