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Volume 21 No. 1

Events and Attractions

The annual March of Dimes Sports Luncheon on Wednesday will celebrate its 30th anniversary, and over the years it has become the Super Bowl of charitable sports gatherings.

Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson helped start the luncheon and recalls raising around $100,000 in its first year. This year, when the event honors retiring Yankees great Mariano Rivera and the WNBA’s Skylar Diggins as Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, the luncheon will gross a record of more than $1 million. Over the years, more than $10 million has been raised, with more than 80 percent going to the March of Dimes.

The program from the inaugural March of Dimes Sports Luncheon in 1984
No cause or event reaches across the sports media, marketing, advertising and broadcast talent businesses as broadly as this one has, which helps explain its influence and longevity.

“This is one of the rare times the industry gathers as a community as opposed to as competitors,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who has chaired the event since 1997.

Pilson has a son who was born deaf, so he was receptive when the New York MOD chapter approached him around 1983 with the idea of a sports-centered benefit. From the beginning, it was an ecumenical affair, with Pilson and former network sports presidents Dennis Swanson (ABC) and Ken Schanzer (NBC) collaborating, Three decades later, it’s still getting support from industry leaders, like 2013 luncheon co-chairs Ken Hershman of HBO Sports, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, Turner Broadcasting President David Levy and ESPN President John Skipper.

Anheuser-Busch has always been one of the luncheon’s principal sponsors.

“The NFL has United Way and MLB has the Boys & Girls Clubs,” said former A-B media and sports marketing executive Tony Ponturo, “but this is the one charitable event that brings everyone in sports and media together.”

The first luncheon was at the New York Hilton and it honored figure skater Scott Hamilton’s 1984 Olympic gold medal. Phyllis George and Howard Cosell were the emcees. Then, as now, more than 25 New York-based sportscasters were invited. Cosell used the introductions to roast each sportscaster and the luncheon ran nearly an hour longer than expected.

Advertisers in the inaugural program included now-defunct sports organizations like the original New York Cosmos, ProServ, PSP and the USFL.

Other memories from those associated with the luncheon for decades include the graciousness displayed by NYC Marathon founder Fred Lebow and Arthur Ashe when they were honored. Patrick Ewing got the award at an early luncheon, but that’s remembered for a different reason. Ewing’s stand-in dropped the award upon receiving it and it broke.

Inner Circle Sports partner Steve Horowitz, then at ProServ, has been working on the luncheon since the late 1980s. His first assignment was to find a sculptor to craft an award that wouldn’t break. Marc Mellon and Mellon Studios have been making the awards ever since, and no one can recall one breaking.

For a business that never tires of networking, the 45 minutes of schmoozing before the lunch is as important an event as the 105-minute luncheon, perhaps even more so. “We always tried to make networking an integral part of the luncheon and it’s become that and sort of a holiday season kickoff,” Pilson said. “When I tick off the things I’m really proud of, this is at the top.”

Over the years, the luncheon has been at other venues, including a dinner on the floor of Madison Square Garden the year Marv Albert was honored. However, it has been at the Waldorf for some time, where it draws more than 700. Other than honoring sportsman and sportswoman, top sports business leaders are feted. This year, Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, is being honored for Corporate Leadership, while Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark is receiving the Sports Leadership Award.

Each year, a child who has survived premature birth takes the stage at the luncheon with his or her parents. “If you ask why this had lasted 30 years, it’s because of that poignant moment,” McManus said.

16W Marketing partner Steve Rosner has been working on the luncheon for a decade. His explanation of the program’s longevity and clout are that it’s always been administered by a powerful committee, and it has two potent points of contact.

“Our business is about connecting the dots, and often the media business is the most powerful connection,” Rosner said. “And on a personal level, kids connect all of us.”

Around 20 years after Horowitz initially worked on the luncheon, he and his wife had a child born prematurely. “When it touches you, you get to appreciate the cause that much more,” he said.

Proving that any club with strong management can contend for a championship in Major League Soccer, MLS Cup 2013 on Saturday between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake features teams from two of the smallest markets in the league.

“We don’t view ourselves as a small-market club, but it says a lot about MLS that any team can compete and you don’t necessarily have to spend big money on players,” said Robb Heineman, CEO of Sporting Club, the parent corporation of Sporting Kansas City, and one of five principal owners of the team. “It’s also a testament, for both us and Real Salt Lake, of the virtues of great coaching.”

Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi celebrates at Sporting Park, which will host MLS Cup.
In Nielsen’s rankings of the top television markets, Kansas City is 14th, Columbus is 15th and Salt Lake City is 16th among MLS’s 16 U.S.-based franchises. While the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders spent more than $9 million in player payroll this season, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake were two of the league’s 12 clubs to spend less than $4 million on player salaries.

“We’re proud to be in this with KC because it’s two teams that do it right,” said Real Salt Lake President Bill Manning. “We both have top-of-the-line soccer stadiums and front offices, and we’ve both shown that developing players can lead to great results.”

The championship match, set for 4 p.m. Saturday and televised by ESPN and UniMas, along with TSN2 and RDS in Canada, will be held at Sporting Park in Kansas City because SKC had the best regular-season record of the two conference champions. (Before last year, MLS held the title game at a predetermined neutral site.) Kansas City has not seen a championship captured at one of its home stadiums since the Royals won the World Series in 1985.

As a result, MLS Cup is a hot ticket in town.

“The requests are coming from everywhere,” said SKC Chief Revenue Officer Jake Reid. “It’s impossible to take care of everyone.”

The math is simple, according to Reid: Sporting Park holds just more than 21,000, and 14,000 of those seats have been taken by team season-ticket holders. An additional 1,000 went to Sporting Kansas City partial plan holders who bought ticket strips for the entire postseason. MLS requires about 2,000 seats to take care of league and club officials, sponsors and VIPs. As the visiting team, Real Salt Lake is entitled to 1,000 for its supporters.

Fewer than 3,000 MLS Cup tickets, priced by Sporting Kansas City in consultation with the league office from $50 to $135, were available for public sale and were expected to sell out immediately.

For MLS and its partners, the match is a return to Kansas City a little more than four months after Sporting Park was the site of the 2013 AT&T MLS All-Star Game.

“There’s certainly a familiarity in Kansas City with local vendors and with the host club that makes producing the event a bit easier,” said Jen Maurillo, MLS vice president of special events.

MLS will use downtown Kansas City as a hub of activity, including a concert. On Friday, SKC and MLS will host a viewing party for the FIFA World Cup draw at Sporting Park for fans that will include appearances by U.S. men’s national team players. Soccer Celebration, the league’s activation zone for sponsors adjacent to Sporting Park, will take place in the hours leading up to the game.

For many league and U.S. Soccer sponsors with deals through Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, MLS Cup is a third trip to Kansas City in barely four months after the All-Star Game on July 31 and the U.S. men’s team’s World Cup qualifier there Oct. 11. After activating at MLS title matches in Los Angeles the last two Decembers, sponsors are preparing for the cold weather in Kansas City.

“We’re a part of many of these events in the winter and we know to be ready,” said Tracy Drelich, associate manager of promotions and sponsorship for BP Lubricants USA, which owns Castrol, an MLS sponsor. “We had some rain in Los Angeles at the last two MLS Cups. The response from fans is not diminished by the weather. It might have been nice to activate in another city so we could reach different consumers, but we’re very happy to be back in Kansas City.”