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From Pug to Plug: : The Selling of a Heavyweight Champ

March 31, 1987|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

"Hi. I'm Mike Tyson. I'm the heavyweight champion of the world. I just love knocking guys out . (Rapid film sequence: three fighters crash to canvas). But I also like watching old-timers knock guys out, too. (Rapid film sequence: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano knock fighters to canvas). I watch old boxing movies maybe 12 hours a week, and believe me, only my Widget video cassette recorder could stand up under this kind of punishment . . . " "Hi. I'm Mike Tyson. I'm the heavyweight champion of the world. Do I like hamburgers? Hey, I don't let anyone stand between me and the greatest hamburger of them all, the Big Mike . " (Rapid film sequence: three fighters crash to canvas. Fade out: Tyson, takes a big bite of a Big Mike, in front of a Widgetburger restaurant . ) "Hi. I'm Mike Tyson. I'm the heavyweight champion of the world. You know what really makes me thirsty? Hitting guys on the head so hard . " (Rapid film sequence: three fighters crash to canvas. Fade out: A perspiring Tyson, grinning and showing his gold tooth, drinks deeply from a can of Widget Cola . )

Last January, in a report on sports marketing, the Wall Street Journal said that golfer Arnold Palmer earns nearly $9 million a year, more than any other American athlete.

Right behind him, according to the paper's survey of product endorsement income among America's richest athletes, was another golfer, Jack Nicklaus, who earns about $7 million a year. Others on the list: tennis star Boris Becker, $6 million; former race driver Jackie Stewart, $2 million; tennis player Ivan Lendl, $2 million, and basketball player Michael Jordan, $2 million.

Mike Tyson won't turn 21 till June 30 but is already the heavyweight boxing champion in the eyes of the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Assn. He has earned $3 million for his last two fights. But Jimmy Jacobs, who co-manages Tyson with Bill Cayton, says his boxer has the potential to surpass Nicklaus. And Palmer. And everyone else.

"Mike will, if he continues as he has, make more money than any athlete in the history of this country," Jacobs said.

Jacobs bases his prediction on Tyson's potential earnings in the endorsement field, which he says will exceed his boxing income.

He also bases it on two other assumptions:

--That Tyson will continue to win over a period of years.

--That he doesn't have to fight any more Bonecrusher Smiths.

A crowd of 13,851 paid up to $750 a ticket earlier this month at the Las Vegas Hilton to watch Smith grab and hold Tyson for 12 rounds. Tyson won a lopsided decision, but it was bad theater. Any more like that, and Tyson may wind up having to endorse dog food.

By 1986, when the 5-foot 9-inch, 220-pound Tyson had established himself as possibly one of boxing's premier heavyweights, Jacobs and Cayton began measuring Tyson's sock in the endorsement market. Then, after his sensational two-round destruction of WBC champion Trevor Berbick last November, offers began "pouring in," according to Jacobs.

But between running Tyson's boxing career and their own business, Big Fights, Inc., which produces boxing films and sells them to TV stations worldwide, they were hard-pressed to find time to study the endorsement market.

Enter Ohlmeyer Communications, Inc.

Jay Rosenstein, 39, is a former Time magazine sportswriter and now a vice president at Ohlmeyer Communications. He never boxed. When asked to describe his greatest moments in sports, he said it was playing in "sewer to sewer" touch football games as a teen-ager on 74th Street in Manhattan.

Today, Rosenstein has a major sports marketing project on his hands. His assignment: to visit the carpeted, paneled offices of corporate America, looking for "about three or four" multimillion-dollar endorsement deals for Tyson.

Jacobs and Cayton refer all endorsement inquiries to Ohlmeyer Communications, a firm founded by Don Ohlmeyer, former NBC and ABC sports executive. His company has 140 employees, offices in New York and Beverly Hills, and did $40-million worth of business last year with such clients as IBM, Mazda, Paine Webber and RJR Nabisco.

The company recently added its first sports client, Mike Tyson.

"It wasn't a case of our having to out-bid anyone to get Mike as a client," Rosenstein said. "Jimmy Jacobs is an old friend of John Martin, the president of our company.

"Also, Jimmy was impressed at how much business we did with golf, and the major corporations who're active in the golf market. He felt Mike would have an advantage with us because of our entree with the big companies that are golf-connected."

"And Jimmy also liked the idea that Mike would be the only athlete we represent."

Rosenstein wouldn't identify which corporations he's talking with, but did offer a broad hint.

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