Commentary: Goodwill Doesn't Make For Good Games

World Series and America's Cup trophies--two of the highest honors in sports--adorn Ted Turner's 14th-floor office atop CNN Center in Atlanta. But the sporting event that matters most to him--the Goodwill Games, which he created in 1986--is far from the winner's circle. In fact, this fourth installment of the games, opening on July 19 in New York, will pile at least $25 million on to the $109 million in losses they have racked up since they were started.

The games were established to promote feel-good relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the cold war. And Turner's people always bragged that they didn't care about the losses: They were making the world safe for democracy. But since the collapse of communism, the Goodwill Games have struggled for an identity in a saturated sports market. Now, the games must prove their mettle under the scrutiny of new parent Time Warner Inc.

Unfortunately, this version of the Goodwill Games will be a mere regional event in a poorly chosen locale. New York might be the world's largest media market, but it's home to a notoriously tough crowd: Of the 600,000 tickets available this summer, just 180,000 had been sold with only two weeks left before the opening festivities.

DAMN YANKEES. Games officials anticipate heavy walk-up sales in response to a late advertising blitz hyping the 15-day event in which contestants compete for prize money--a total of $5 million--in popular Olympic sports such as figure skating, track and field, swimming, and gymnastics. However, the athletes will also be competing against the hometown Yankees, who own the best record in baseball this season, and the surprisingly strong Mets. "I'd send my clients to the theater first," sniffs Martin E. Blackman, a sports-marketing consultant who advised Miller Brewing Co. to pass on the games.

At least you can read the reviews before going to the theater. Sponsors never know what they're getting with the Goodwill Games. In St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1994, the first few days of the swimming competition had to be canceled because the pool water was green. And only one day before the ice skating competition was scheduled to begin, the rink had no ice. After those games, which lost $40 million, just 4 of 14 corporations renewed their sponsorships. This year, big-name sponsors include Sony, Gillette, Anheuser-Busch, and Johnson & Johnson.

To keep the sponsors happy, executives at Time Warner believe that they have come up with a remedy for all the snafus: Cut fat and micromanage everything. The result: Instead of 25 competitions with 3,000 athletes, there will be 15 television-friendly sports with only 1,500 athletes. A clever new finals-only format will highlight the three prime-time hours of coverage nightly on TBS.

And Time Warner has run some 13,000 TV advertising spots, many of which promote the Goodwill Games' new mission. What is that mission? Well, that's where things get a little fuzzy. What is essentially TV programming for Turner is being sold as charitable entertainment. "People aren't going to go out and just watch raw sports," says Goodwill Games President Michael P. Plant. "You've got to entertain them and give them a cause to come out for."

NEW BOUNCE. So Time Warner's music business has lined up Brandy, Ray Charles, and Hootie & the Blowfish to play at the opening ceremonies. Halftime shows will feature bungee jumpers and skydivers. And 1% of the $200 million cost to stage the games will be donated to the Boys' & Girls' Clubs of America and UNICEF. "It hasn't worked out as the mini-Olympics Turner wanted, so now we're seeing Ted's giant cocktail party," says David M. Carter, a University of Southern California sports-business professor.

That might be a little harsh, but it's true that clicker-crazed TV sports fans could care less about noble sentiments. They demand rivalries and upsets--Donovan Bailey pushing Michael Johnson to another world record in the 100--and all in a context that means something. Without the nationalistic fervor and traditions of the Olympics, the Goodwill Games are little more than a sports exhibition. And for a top-shelf sportsman like Ted Turner, they just don't fit the trophy case.