A Sports Marketer With A Mean Curve

After Sprint Corp. paid $20 million in sponsorship fees for the 1994 World Cup, Mike Goff needed help. As director of corporate sponsorships, Goff wanted Sprint to get its money's worth. So for a flat fee, he hired a sports-marketing firm, Clarion Performance Properties in Greenwich, Conn., to come up with ideas.

The result: long-distance calling cards picturing soccer stars, a geography program for Latin American schools tied to game results, and discounts on long-distance calls for soccer-related businesses. Plus, Sprint agreed to pay a percentage of soccer-related long-distance bills to local soccer groups. And every World Cup fax or phone call went through Sprint. A preliminary analysis of how much business the programs produced, Goff says, is "frankly, stunning. We owe a lot of our success to Clarion."

Sports marketers help corporations sponsor everything from rodeos to the Olympics, and Sprint's success isn't rare. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) sponsors see as much as a 1,000% return on their money in increased sales and brand recognition, says a study by a group of Wake Forest University MBA students. Valvoline Inc. pays about $3.5 million yearly in NASCAR sponsorships but gets $22.4 million in sales and exposure in return, the group figured, assessing value to such factors as the number of minutes the Valvoline name is on TV screens during races.

The sports-marketing business is seeing phenomenal growth: Companies paid $2.4 billion last year in sports-related ventures, up 15% from 1992, mostly filtered through sports marketers. But Clarion is becoming a particularly heavy hitter. For Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Clarion negotiated $22.5 million worth of contracts with Budweiser, Chevrolet, Delco Electronics, Pennzoil, and General Motors Service Parts Operations to sponsor the Brickyard 400, NASCAR's successful debut for stock cars at the once-exclusive home of the Indy 500.

Clarion was recently picked by H. Wayne Huizenga's Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. to combine promos for video-rental customers and fans of his Miami Dolphins football team, Florida Panthers hockey team, and Florida Marlins baseball club. For example, customers of South Florida Blockbuster stores who rented three videos this summer got a pass to a Marlins game.

Clarion also controls marketing for National Football League Properties Inc., the $2.5 billion merchandise-marketing arm of pro football. When Clarion took over in 1987, the average price paid by a company wanting to become an NFL sponsor--the "official" soft drink, or whatever--was $500,000. Now, it's $10 million. Clarion's "position and ability to execute their plans has made them quite successful," says Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, an industry newsletter.

Credit Alex Nieroth and Gordon H. Kane, two former Procter & Gamble Co. brand managers who run Clarion, a division of New York ad agency D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles Inc., which bought it in 1989. Sports marketing once meant hanging banners in stadiums, and even now, it's often little more. But Nieroth and Kane take a strategic, brand-development approach they learned in their P&G days. Kane, 36, says that too often businesses sponsor sports for the wrong reasons. In the past, this sometimes happened because a CEO or CFO "had a great affinity for the sport."

HIGHER PROFILE. That's changing, thanks to sports marketers that show companies how to use sports to grab potential customers' attention. Cleveland-based International Management Group (IMG), which also represents athletes and owns sporting events, dominates the field and is Clarion's biggest competitor. Other rivals include Stamford (Conn.)-based Sports & Co., which specializes in pro bicycle races, and Switzerland's ISL Marketing, which represents the Olympics. Clarion, founded in 1987, ranks second to IMG--a $700 million company that doesn't break out sports-marketing results--with $30 million in revenue, and has been raising its profile lately with marquee customers.

Nieroth's team created the Gillette promotion in which one fan is picked to shoot a three-pointer for $1 million at the NCAA basketball championship. This year, 2 million fans--who had to buy a Gillette product to enter--signed up.

But sports can toss beanballs at marketers. Clarion thought up a competition for Gillette in which one fan will try to throw a baseball into a catcher's glove at the World Series. Oops! While the players' strike means that event may not see an October night, Nieroth figures Clarion has already hit the mitt.


BLOCKBUSTER To leverage video-game rentals, the fastest-growing segment of Blockbuster's business, Clarion developed a world video-game championship that was held on Aug. 21 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

NFL PROPERTIES Clarion has helped expand golf outings involving NFL stars and golf pros to four events per year.

GILLETTE Clarion thought of having a fan shoot a three-pointer for $1 million at the NCAA Final Four. A $1 million World Cup soccer kick contest was a natural.


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