SACRAMENTO — When state lottery officials began devising a marketing plan to attract customers to their new Lotto game, flashy television commercials with action shots of smiling sports stars seemed like a natural.
After all, Californians might want to pick the uniform numbers of their favorite professional athletes when they plunk down their dollar bills and select their entries next Tuesday when the lottery kicks off its legal numbers game, called Lotto 6/49.
The lottery did line up some big-name sports figures: Laker star Magic Johnson, Dodger outfielder Pedro Guerrero, Oakland A's rookie sensation Jose Canseco and retired NFL running back O. J. Simpson; they appear in commercials airing over the next three weeks.
But in linking the athletes to gambling, lottery officials stepped into a sensitive area. Professional sports executives and players generally have sought to distance themselves from gambling since the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, in which Chicago White Sox players threw the World Series after being bribed by gamblers.
The National Football League refused to allow its active players to appear in the commercials, dashing the lottery's hopes of landing Joe Montana, Dan Fouts or Marcus Allen. Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and California Angel first baseman Wally Joyner declined to participate.
And a spokesman for Peter Ueberroth, major league baseball commissioner, said the commissioner's office had not been notified of the commercials and would be "looking into" the arrangement.
"This is the first we heard about it. Everybody is surprised," said baseball spokesman Richard Levin. Calling state lotteries a "new arena" he added, "gambling is a very sensitive issue. With legalized gambling, you're dealing with a borderline thing."
Tony DeMarco, Valenzuela's agent, said his client endorses "wholesome" and "nice" products. Explaining the decision to turn down the lottery offer, DeMarco said, "The lottery is gambling; that is basically the answer."
But at the same time, sports figures who got involved in the project defend it, emphasizing that the lottery is legal and that 34% of the money collected goes to support California public schools. Lottery officials, who never use the word "gambling" in their publicity or advertising, said they are pleased with the celebrities who agreed to appear.
Susan Clark, marketing director for the lottery, said lottery officials wanted to feature athletes in the commercials because of "the fun of picking numbers--just another way of telling people that you get to pick the number of your favorite sports star."
In the game, bettors pay $1 for a play slip on which they select six numbers from 1 to 49. Every Saturday, a machine will select the six winning numbers for a grand prize that could be in the tens of millions of dollars. The odds of winning the jackpot are about 14 million to 1.
"I seriously don't consider the lottery gambling," Clark said. "It's a game. People play it to have fun and help the schools."
The commercials do not show the athletes in team uniforms. The state would have had to pay extra to use team or league logos--assuming that the teams or leagues would have agreed to their use.
In the commercials, baseball players Canseco and Guerrero and Laker star Johnson wear costumes in their team colors and numbers. Simpson is shown in what appears to be a park, wearing a numbered jersey.
The lottery paid a total of $45,000 for their appearances in the commercials, plus another $4,500 to San Diego Padre first baseman Steve Garvey's La Jolla sports marketing firm, which lined up the athletes. A spokesman for Garvey suggested that Garvey had some qualms about the deal--but not enough to pass on it.
A Small 'Compromise'
"Steve Garvey knows that in order for the company to become larger than simply being involved in his personal marketing, his personal principles may be compromised in some small way," said Steven Ross, a spokesman for Garvey and the company.
As it turns out, Garvey is scheduled to appear with teammate Tony Gwynn in San Diego Tuesday at a special event staged by the lottery to launch Lotto. Dodger second baseman Steve Sax is scheduled to appear at a similar event in Westwood.
"We don't get involved in passing judgment on the morals in the deals we make. There is obviously an indirect endorsement. But the lottery is legal and it raises money for the California school system," Ross said.
There were, meanwhile, a few other problems in arranging the deal. A client of Garvey Marketing Groups, Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, also would have appeared, but he wears No. 55. The new Lotto game numbers run only through 49.
Another problem was to find a football player after the NFL said active players could not appear. The lottery opted for Simpson, the former USC, Buffalo Bill and San Francisco 49er star who retired in 1979 and is now an actor and TV sports announcer.
Players 'Weren't Thrilled'