MARKET FOCUS - SPORTS PR: Image is everything - Talent getsathletes to the top of the sports world, but a winning public image maythrust them into the top-dollar sponsorship league, finds GideonFidelzeid

Pictures of a radiant Venus Williams winning last week's US Open

final showcased one of the finest athletes at the top of her game,

accepting her win in charming form. No doubt it's one reason that Reebok

saw her as an ideal choice for a $40 million sponsorship deal

last December.

But she wasn't always such a good example of sportsmanship. From the

time she turned pro in 1994, Williams had a reputation of not only being

confrontational, but of enjoying the controversy she created. Thanks to

a spell in charm school, Williams' image has been reinvented with a more

positive frame of mind, spelling success on the court - and in the


"An athlete's reputation is the most important thing they have," claims

Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR in New York. "More-over,"

says Bret Werner, VP at Alan Taylor Communications, "a sports figure's

life is scrutinized more than any other individual." Everything from

their everyday activities to the most intricate details of their

contracts is publicized.

These factors have combined to make PR crucial in professional


For starters, many teams play their games in stadiums sponsored by major

corporations, and the teams don't want to jeopardize the millions they

get for such deals. To protect their interests, each team in the four

major leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL) employs an in-house PR staff that

on a fairly regular basis seeks the advice of outside agencies. However,

for individual athletes, reputation management is even more vital.

"There is a correlation," says Peter Land, GM of the sports and

entertainment practice at Edelman, "between reputation and endorsement

income." One need look no further than Venus Williams for an example.

The improved reputation, as much as her powerful game, has helped land

her numerous marketing deals, including a clothing line from Wilson's

Leather in addition to her Reebok deal, the most lucrative ever for a

female athlete.

In team sports, adds Paul, practically every player has a behavioral

clause in his contract, so a bad image can cost a star literally


What's more, traits that are perceived as assets elsewhere are deemed

flaws for athletes.

"If a CEO is a barracuda, his aggressiveness is viewed positively,"

explains Werner. "An athlete, on the other hand, is expected to visit

sick kids in the hospital." He adds that rock stars are often forgiven

their transgressions because they're expected to be outlandish, but

athletes are condemned for similar actions. To that end, PR has proven

to be an essential tool in every athlete's equipment bag.

Quarterback changes image

In February 1999, the NFL's New York Giants took a major PR gamble in

signing Kerry Collins - a talented, yet troubled quarterback - to a

lucrative contract with a $5 million signing bonus.

In the past, Collins was dubbed a racist due to an off-color joke he

told a Carolina Panthers teammate. He was even tagged a "quitter" by his

Panthers coach just prior to being released, not to mention that he was

charged with DUI in the fall of 1998. For any player, particularly a

quarterback (a position that requires leadership), any one of these

three tags is an albatross at best.

In defending the signing, Pat Hanlon, the Giants' VP of communications,

explains, "Kerry could play, period." Beyond that, Collins was committed

to changing. The Giants, in turn, committed to helping Collins do just


In their typically low-key approach, the Giants announced Collins'

February signing via a press release, and only made him available to the

media the following May. "We wanted to give Kerry time to sort things

through, which made all subsequent PR moves easier," says Hanlon.

"You're going to be much more effective when you aren't trying to sell


Jamey Crimmins, managing director at Client Marketing, has worked with

Collins since he entered the NFL in 1995. "Kerry simply made youthful

mistakes," she says. "But he was smart enough to realize that he had to


Collins checked himself into rehab in 1999. With organizational support,

he took psychology courses at a local college, and became active in the

community. Upon his arrival in New York, Collins heard about a planned

Harlem Boys Choir trip to sing in Israel, which was cancelled due to

lack of funding. Collins donated $60,000 to make the trip

possible, and true to his personality, says Crimmins, Collins shied away

from publicity.

When the media eventually found out, Collins' charitable act turned into

brilliant PR simply because it wasn't a PR move to begin with.

While Collins wished to keep his philanthropic endeavors quiet, he was

open about his problems. And at Crimmins' suggestion, Collins agreed to

do a weekly show on New York's premiere all-sports radio station. "This

gave the public a chance to discover the real Kerry," says Crimmins.

When Collins led the Giants to the 2001 Super Bowl, Hanlon set up a

special press conference where he addressed his past problems. Again,

Collins faced the issues head on.

His willingness to change, along with the Giants' support, has turned

this "bad boy" into one of New York's top sports figures. "While Kerry

isn't presently seeking endorsements," adds Crimmins, he'd stand to make

millions if he were. He has a successfully rebuilt image to thank for


Reputation for fighting

Perhaps no sport suffers an image problem more than boxing. "Almost

every fighter battles Mike Tyson's reputation," says Trayce Zimmermann,

sole practitioner of TZPR in Chicago, who currently works with several


It's unfortunate, Zimmermann adds, because most boxers could benefit

from more positive PR.

One of her first clients was Michael Bennett, a US heavyweight contender

at the 2000 Sydney Olympics who had spent seven years in prison for

armed robbery. Surviving that and qualifying for the Olympics was

nothing short of miraculous. And since most Americans take great pride

in their Olympians, Trayce focused her efforts on getting Bennett's

story out.

"This was a great tale of redemption," says Zimmermann, adding that

daily papers ate up the story. She even got Bennett an appearance on

Good Morning America, and by the time the Olympics started, Bennett was

the most highly publicized boxer at the Games. "Focusing on how boxing

helped him overcome his problems was key," explains Zimmermann.

Another client, Vassiliy Jirov of Kazakhstan (who currently lives and

trains in Phoenix), won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1996

Atlanta Olympics. He is currently the International Boxing Federation's

cruiserweight champion, and he's undefeated as a pro. Yet few people

know him. As Zimmermann puts it colorfully, "Vassiliy is to boxing what

the Bolshoi is to ballet.

He's Russian, he's an artist, and very few get to appreciate the


Zimmermann's creative PR approach with Jirov has included telling

stories of his unusual training, which includes working on his speed by

running in a 100-foot hallway attached to a German Shepherd by a

five-foot rope.

"This is marketable," exclaims Zimmermann. Through stories like this,

Jirov has gained coverage in USA Today, New York Newsday, and other

papers. She even organized a live chat with Jirov on, the

highest-rated boxing-fan website. She also helped get his September 8

fight on HBO. The bout, which Jirov won with an eighth-round knockout,

was his biggest payday to date (over $500,000).

However, boxers will never have the endorsement avenues other pro

athletes do, says Zimmermann. Thus, their in-ring income is even more

vital. "It's not enough to be a great fighter," says Zimmermann. Boxers

need to get on pay-per-view, and get the big fights against the top

names in the sport.

And without recognition, none of this is possible. In Jirov's case,

talent and Zimmermann's PR approach are proving to be a most powerful

one-two combination.

Swings and misses

Just as PR can rebuild a bad image, the lack of PR can accentuate it.

Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' left fielder, is one of

baseball's greatest players, and is currently chasing the sport's most

hallowed record - the single-season home run total of 70 (currently held

by the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Mark McGwire). Unfortunately,

Bonds' surly attitude toward the media supercedes his


"Barry has a less-than-stellar image," admits Bob Rose, who has just

completed his ninth year as VP of communications for the Giants. He adds

that Bonds' reluctance to address the media on its terms has caused the

press to look for reasons to vilify him.

Bonds has suffered on two fronts. First, many are ambivalent, if not

outright pessimistic, toward his pursuit of the record. Second, while

many of his contemporaries make millions off endorsements, Bonds


However, Bonds has made strides this season, says Rose, making himself

more accessible to the media and publicizing his vast charitable


But still, Bonds remains a tough sell: the first key to a PR campaign is

the subject's willingness to partake in it, and the second is his

realization of how important image is. Bonds has shown little interest

in either.

Rose says, "It's not good PR if you force-feed people, or if you try to

project an image around someone who doesn't want it."

"You don't just want statistics to speak for you," says Paul. "A lot of

players have great stats. What separates the most coveted players from

the others is reputation." And in Bonds' case, a lack of PR interest has

cast a shadow over one of baseball's all-time greats, which the media

and sponsors have certainly noticed.

The final whistle

In the end, of course, the bottom line is success. If athletes don't

produce results, image isn't even an issue. But at the pro level, where

all participants can be deemed successful, PR means a lot. In fact, a

sports celebrity who has turned his reputation around can be the most

marketable of all.

"The public, and in turn sponsors, can be very forgiving if a superstar

admits to their mistakes," claims Paul. "What they can't forgive is

lying or not facing up to their actions."

Athletes will always be in the spotlight, even after their playing


And while once your career ends you'll never hit another home run, get

another knockout, or score a touchdown, you'll always be able to score

points off the field - especially financially - if you have the right


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