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Double Coverage

Sports marketers share office--may share business, too.

By Sarah Talalay

December 20, 2001

MIAMI BEACH -- Five floors above the Van Dyke Cafe on trendy Lincoln Road Mall, a couple of sports marketing's creative minds are plotting how to bring exposure to two of sport's most challenging stories.

One story is Barry Bonds, the antithesis of a media darling; the other story features sister sports of luge: women's bobsled, the Winter Olympics' newest sport, and the return of skeleton, the sport where athletes ride sleds headfirst down a bobsled track.

The sports marketers behind these disparate stories are Eric Levin and Scott Becher, two 38-year-olds raised in Miami, who in the past few years have built up a roster of clients ranging from Playboy Enterprises to Hershey Foods Corp., and this fall began sharing sleek concrete-and-wood office space. Levin is president of Pro Access; Becher is president of Sports & Sponsorships. Pro Access, a 4-year-old company, and a Texas company last month were hired to represent Bonds, Major League Baseball's new home run king, under an 18-month marketing deal aimed at bringing the slugger the kind of endorsement exposure he's previously lacked.

"Whether in entertainment or sports, you want to be ahead of the curve."
Scott Becher, President, Sports & Sponsorships

Levin, who is also a nightclub owner and a former general contractor, used the concept of "milestone marketing" to promote the rushing records of two clients, former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders and current Dallas Cowboys back Emmitt Smith.

With milestones in mind, Levin hopes to capitalize on Bonds' record-breaking 73-home run season by matching the San Francisco Giants slugger with apparel and shoe companies and bottled water manufacturers. Endorsements have not come easily to Bonds, who has a reputation with the media for being surly. Levin expects endorsement deals to be reached within two months.

"We believe he's been a little bit misunderstood," Levin said. "Now it's a question of getting corporate America to buy into what kind of person he is off the field, a family man, philanthropist."

While Pro Access works on making Bonds lovable, Sports & Sponsorships has signed on to help the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation promote men's and women's bobsled, and the return of skeleton to the Olympics after a 54-year absence.

The 5-year-old company that markets for Hershey's and Sprint Corp. wasn't immediately eager. After all, what did Sports & Sponsorships' Becher, who'd seen snow only as a college student at Northwestern University, know about snow sports and the winter games?

The prospect of introducing America to amateur athletes involved in some of the Winter Games' fastest and arguably most thrilling sports convinced Becher to accept the challenge in March, less than a year before the February 2002 Salt Lake City games.

"Whether in enteretainment or sports, you want to be ahead of the curve," Becher said. "Skeleton has such an X Games appeal. When you're marketing and you have a chance to start with a clean piece of paper, that's the rational appeal."

The sports-marketing industry is so vast that it includes companies that may do one restaurant promotion for a sporting event to the kind of work Becher and Levin do creating marketing programs that are not only memorable, but help leverage a company's brand for the long term. For example, it was Becher's idea to help Hershey create a "Final Four Tickets for Life" promotion around the company's NCAA sponsorship.

For Playboy, Pro Access has provided athletes for fashion spreads, such as "Boxers in Boxers," a piece on Boxers wearing boxer shorts.

Playboy editors and Bonds' representatives give Pro Access high marks. Pro Access and its Texas partner were among several companies that pitched their work months before Bonds broke the home run record.

"We liked their enthusiasm about Barry," Bonds' publicist Rachael Vizcarra said adding that they were able to see Bonds as more than just his slugging percentage--as a family man, who loves kids and dogs. "They see beyond the box."

The sponsorship part of marketing has become so important that some companies have dedicated whole departments to sports marketing, and according to IEG, a Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm, sports accounted for 69 percent of the $9.5 billion projected to be spent on sponsorships in North America this year.

In October, when companies were cutting back or eliminating sports sponsorships in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Becher helped the bobsled and skeleton federation ink a multimillion-dollar, five-year sponsorship deal with Verizon Communications. While women's bobsled made news on its own last week when one of its most attractive and marketable women's teams split up, Becher has helped secure television exposure for bobsled and skeleton.

"I have an agreement with Scott for five years," said Dmitry Feld, the federation's marketing director. "We're not going to let him go anywhere."

The two companies, known for their creativity and for being proactive, are hoping the marriage is more than just one of convenience. While it's unlikely you'll find Bonds on a bobsled, other kinds of collaboration are already under way.

While Pro Access is pitching Bonds, Sports & Sponsorships represents Marlins outfielder Preston Wilson for his off-the-field endorsements, charities and appearances. Becher and Levin are considering how they might expand marketing of their major leaguers.