MEET THE NFL'S NEWEST QUARTERBACK
When Sara Levinson and her assistant, Kelly Junior, walked down the hall at National Football League headquarters on Park Avenue in New York City recently, heads turned. The new president of NFL Properties Inc., the merchandising arm of the NFL, was decked out in black leather Bermuda shorts. Junior wore a blue leather suit. "Everyone was looking at the two of us," says the 44-year-old Levinson. "I said, `Didn't you guys get the leather memo? Today is Leather Day.' They were all looking in their in boxes for `the leather memo."'
Such brashness and wit might be just what the NFL, that 75-year-old temple of testosterone, needs as it tries to score with a generation of channel surfers while holding on to its core Joe Sixpack crowd. The properties division, which this year will rake in royalties on $3 billion in retail sales of licensed merchandise alone, is key to that goal. And Levinson, who helped turn MTV Network from a fad into a household word and the No.1 cable-TV channel, will be calling the plays.
SHARED TARGETS. NFL Properties needed a strong quarterback. League President Neil R. Austrian, who had worked with Levinson at Showtime Network Inc., lured her from the presidency of MTV after the abrupt departure of John Flood. Flood had made an undisclosed personal investment in Dallas-based trading-card company ProSet Press Ltd., which had an exclusive license to make official NFL cards. The conflict of interest led to Flood's dismissal. His tenure had been a short one in any case: He moved into the top spot at NFL Properties after John Bello, who sought but was denied the reins at NFL Enterprises, walked out to seek "broader business horizons."
With that embarrassment and confusion behind it, NFL Properties finds itself playing a tougher game vs. the other major sports. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Assn., and now the National Hockey League all have aggressive, lucrative properties arms that are waging a battle for fan dollars on many fronts. A shared target of these hawkers of sweats and gewgaws: the young and free-spending.
One way to lure the folks who wear their Vikings caps backward is with cutting-edge technology, from CD-ROM games to on-line services. Microsoft Complete Baseball CD-ROM is already on store shelves, and Microsoft Complete Basketball will make its debut in November. The National Hockey League lockout hasn't halted work on CD-ROM games and an interactive encyclopedia for its dewfound youthful audience. National Basketball Assn. Commissioner David J. Stern clips technology news about everything from fiber optics to home-shopping networks, looking for gizmos that might click for hoops. All the sports have moved far beyond the team-jersey, helmet-umbrella, and Christmas-tree-ornament crowd. "The twentysomethings and below are so technologically facile," says Levinson. "If you can get them in early, then the commitment stays."
Right now Levinson is planning the most comprehensive survey ever of sports fans. "MTV was always described as `if it was a person, you'd always want to go to their party--but you'd never want to take them as a date,"' says Levinson. The league's on-line fan club may help her gain a similar level of understanding of the 30 NFL teams and the league as a whole. Says Charles B. Fruit, senior vice-president for media at Coca-Cola Co. and a longtime Levinson-watcher: "She knows the care and feeding of a global brand. [The NFL] has to be one big brand with 30 flavors."
This year for the first time, NFL fans can cast Pro Bowl votes on Prodigy. Levinson sees the on-line service becoming a real-time bulletin board for Monday-morning quarterbacks. She also sees it as a market-research gold mine of everything from fans' opinions of league rules to their taste in merchandise. "The fans want to be heard, to be weighed in," says Levinson. "They want to get their hands on this game in other ways besides wearing the team jersey and watching the game on TV."
Don't think that Levinson is simply out to MTV-ize the NFL, though. That's a task the press saddled her with in a fit of wishful thinking, she believes. "Never during the entire interview process was it said that we need to make [the NFL] hipper, younger. You don't want to tinker with success," she says. She would rather explore new ways to bring the hard-core fan closer to the game with such promotions as a chance to ride the team bus or maybe even get into a huddle. Levinson plans more gimmicks tied in with the 30 local franchises. "You could do something team by team," she says. "These are local businesses."
"GIANTS HEAVEN." Her 3-year-old son Avery is already a huge fan. She took him to the Redskins-Giants game at Giants Stadium, where he kept his nose pressed to the window of the Commissioner's Box. Says his proud mother: "I'm teaching him the drill. Whenever a commercial for Little Giants comes on, he screams and yells." Avery's bedroom is about to be decorated with stuff from one of Properties' hottest lines: NFL Home--everything from wastebaskets to wallpaper, sheets to lamp shades, phones to helmet TVs. "It's like you died and went to Giants heaven," says Levinson. If she has her way, the next generation of gridiron fans will feel just as dyed-in-the-licensed-wool.
It isn't just trading cards, caps, and T-shirts anymore. The sports-properties world is changing fast as the big leagues grope for new sources of revenue.
Looking for an on-line partner for Baseball Daily stats and information service to start next year; Microsoft Complete Baseball, multimedia reference on CD/ROM
Weekly, Japanese version of the NBC series NBA Inside Stuff, made its bow in April; Microsoft Complete Basketball
Pro Bowl polling on Prodigy; "Throwbacks" line of vintage-style teamwear
NHL/Muppets cross-licensed merchandise will be heavily promoted this holiday season; CD/ROM games and encyclopedia in the works
DATA: BUSINESS WEEKRuth Coxeter in New York, with Chris Roush in New Haven