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Now You Can Read It for the Athletes

March 09, 1993|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Playboy is recasting its Playmates as athletes.

The same women who pose nude as Playboy magazine centerfolds are strapping on ski boots, lacing up tennis shoes and, yes, buckling on race car helmets. The Playmates--in a provocative sports marketing venture--will be competing in athletic events aimed at attracting new advertisers, corporate sponsors and consumers.

Behind all this is a bid by Chicago-based Playboy Enterprises to remold its image into something more politically correct for the 1990s. Playboy is also pressing to improve its still shaky bottom line--net income was down 22% in fiscal 1992 compared to 1991--and to cash in on corporate America's burgeoning interest in the $2-billion world of sports marketing.

Playboy, which has seen its circulation drop by half since the early 1970s--and all 22 of its Playboy Clubs close over the last three decades--has decided that its Playmates must do more than expose their bodies in the magazine and star in racy videos. Executives insist that athletic prowess will now be a real factor in selecting future centerfolds.

Playboy executives are aggressively courting companies and trade groups willing to ante up to $10,000 a day so that one of the 22 Playmate sports teams will spend the day at their gig. Several ski resorts attracted throngs of customers this winter by giving skiers a chance to ski with the Playmate ski team. And the Playmate equestrian team is about to link up with Hollywood Park, where it will take part in a number of the Inglewood racetrack's promotions.

"It's inevitable that someone would try to mix the two biggest male preoccupations in this country into one highly marketable package," said Brian Murphy, publisher of the Sports Marketing Letter. "But all it really is is sex disguised as sports."

Some critics insist that Playboy--now led by Chairman Christie Hefner, daughter of Playboy's founder, Hugh Hefner--is seeking respectability to appeal to advertisers. Christie Hefner was traveling and unavailable for comment.

"It's an easily transparent facade," said Jill Ireland, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women. "No one attending these events is going there so they can see the Playmates' athletic abilities."

While Playboy executives insist that some of their Playmates actually rank as top-flight athletes, sports marketing experts express serious doubts. "I'd be leery of over-inflation of their athletic abilities," said Arthur Kaminsky, president of New York-based Athletes & Artists. "They may be world-class beauties, but certainly not world-class athletes."

World class, no. But several have more than casual talent. Two Playmate ski team members were formerly on the U.S Olympic development team. Another was a U.S. Olympic swim team contender until a motorcycle injury sidelined her.

In addition, a Playmate who is captain of the Playmate running team completed the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday at a respectable 4 hours, 28 minutes--competing in her first marathon.

"We're not just fluff," said Charlotte Helmkamp, who was Playboy's centerfold in December, 1982. "This should prove that we have real abilities beyond posing nude in magazines."

The women are a far cry from Playboy bunnies in cotton tails. Two weeks ago, at a Playboy-sponsored ski event in Telluride, Colo., three Playmates showed up in conventional ski wear and skied with customers. "Playboy is acutely aware of the negative things people think about the magazine," said Mike Hess, vice president of marketing at the Telluride resort.

All of this comes at a time when the lines between the worlds of sports and racy entertainment are blurring. Some say the Dallas Cowgirl cheerleaders began the trend and that the Laker Girls took it to a new level. Magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports have made entire industries out of their popular swimsuit issues. Television shows such as "American Gladiators" and "Battle of the Network Stars" have even tried to mix sex and sports into formats suitable for families.

"It's simply a marketing project that happens to have the Playmates as the product," said Michael O'Hara Lynch, vice president of marketing, who joined Playboy in June from the Arlington, Va.-based sports marketing firm ProServ, where he helped match basketball star Michael Jordan with product sponsors. "It's really no different than marketing soap at Procter & Gamble," said Lynch, who devised the Playmate sports team concept at Playboy's Beverly Hills-based Entertainment Group.

The Playmate athletic teams will also be used as promotional tie-ins for Playboy magazine clients and advertisers, Lynch said. And for those who are disinterested in sports, Playboy is about to expand the Playboy Jazz Festival into an international event, and the company has also formed a Playmate rock band. Meanwhile, Guess Jeans' newest model is a Playboy Playmate.

Some marketers suggest that Playboy may be on the right track with this sports marketing move.

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