Terry Murphy's Wonderful Wannabe Road Show

The dream of playing pro basketball eluded David P. Jensen years ago. Still, as the 32-year-old sales executive for CompUSA Inc. sailed across half court and sank a 20-foot jumper, he looked like much more than a Michael Jordan wannabe. And the competition wasn't exactly a bunch of fumble-fingers--NBA legends Bob McAdoo, Michael Cooper, George Gervin, and Calvin Murphy. Playing ex-pros, says Jensen, a former Southern Illinois University guard, "was a real thrill. I never made it to their level, so this is as close as I'll ever come to playing in the NBA."

A converted parking lot in downtown Dallas on a chilly Sunday afternoon is a long way from the pros. But to Jensen and other Team Houston players whose reward for winning the 1993 Hoop-It-Up Men's Division World Championship was this game, it was close enough.

Begun in 1986 as a charity event for the Texas Special Olympics, the 3-on-3 (plus a substitute) b-ball tournament is now one of the most successful grass-roots sports-marketing vehicles in the country. With the backing of such powerhouses as the National Basketball Assn. and NBC Sports, which will air a one-hour Hoop-It-Up special on Nov. 13, the games will bring in revenues of more than $5 million this year for Streetball Partners International Inc. The Dallas marketer now aims to accelerate its growth by branching into football, baseball, and volleyball.

OLD SPARTAN. The man behind this sports machine is Terry Murphy, 53, once a bench warmer for the San Jose State Spartans. Three years after Hoop-It-Up started, it was attracting 2,000 teams--five times the number that signed up the first year--and Murphy quit his job as publisher of Dallas' now-defunct D Magazine. "That's when I realized this could be a business, a great marketing vehicle because the advertising business was changing," he says.

Almost immediately, Murphy grabbed the attention of PepsiCo Inc., which forked over $1 million to become chief sponsor. With the additional cash, Murphy brought the tournament to 18 cities in 1989. But the aggressive expansion took its toll: Streetball was $290,000 in the red by yearend. It was rescued by a $300,000 cash infusion and much-needed management expertise from Dallas investor Chuck Jarvie, former president of a distiller, and his son Doug, who now serves as Streetball's president.

Since then, the business has been a slam dunk for CEO Murphy, who parted company with PepsiCo amicably in 1991 and promptly aligned with NBC Sports, which holds a minority stake in Hoop-It-Up. Since NBC began broadcasting the Hoop-It-Up finals in 1991, tournament entries have increased by 97%. The network also helped Murphy attract the NBA, which has sanctioned Hoop-It-Up as its official 3-on-3 street basketball tour. With NBC and the NBA at its side, Hoop-It-Up has drawn a slew of national corporate sponsors, including Spalding, Converse/Foot Locker, Upper Deck, Gatorade, and AT&T. Are sponsorships worth the minimum $600,000 price tag? "Hoop-It-Up gives us the perfect opportunity to...put the ball right in their hands," says Scott Dickey, a product manager at Spalding. Beth Bass, Converse's national sports marketing manager, says players redeemed more than 16,000 shoe coupons this year. "Our involvement in Hoop-It-Up is definitely paying off," says Bass.

HOT DOG MONEY. Half of Streetball's revenues comes from national sponsorships. The rest comes from local sponsors, team entry fees, which vary from $75 to $100 depending on the city, and sales of merchandise, food, and beverages. Hoop-It-Up continues to donate a portion of its proceeds to local charities in tournament cities. Earnings are about $500,000, far less than the $2.37 million Streetball has donated since 1986. "We hope [earnings] catch up to charity someday," says Murphy.

Streetball's expansion efforts should help. Murphy aims to boost sales and profits more than 15% with contracts to operate three new ventures. The National Football League's Air-It-Out, which features 4-on-4 flag football, kicked off this fall and will stop in 28 cities. Coming next spring: Pitch, Hit & Run, a skills-based event for kids only, and Spike-It-Up, which features 2- and 4-person team volleyball.

And Hoop-It-Up is growing. The tour attracted more than 150,000 players and nearly 2 million spectators this year and will stop in 50 U.S. and 24 European cities in 1994. Open to players ages 10 and up, the tournament attracts everyone from weekend jocks to couch potatoes to former Olympians such as Nancy Lieberman-Cline. Lieberman-Cline, 35, a member of the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic basketball team, helped Team Omaha grab the women's division 1993 Hoop-It-Up World Championship. "This is as big as winning the Olympics...because this is street ball. I grew up doing this," she says. That's the kind of talk that keeps Terry Murphy playing in the streets.