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Mere Millions

Sponsors are raising the payouts in contests linked to sports events to keep folks interested.

June 11, 1998|GREG JOHNSON

Five years ago, $1 million was seen as a worthy first-place prize. But if one lucky contestant steps into the batter's box at Coors Field in Denver early in July and hits a home run, he--or she--will walk away with a $10-million grand prize. The pile of cash is designed to make Coors' contest stand out at a time when $100-million state lottery pots are prompting consumers to raise their expectations of what constitutes serious money.

"There's definitely some kind of contest inflation going on," said Dave Taylor, corporate communications manager for Adolph Coors Co. "Since any marketing or advertising angle has to be relevant to the target, a million dollars is now 'Been there, done that.' "

"The buzz is what you're going for on this one," said Burke Stinson, spokesman for AT&T, which recently offered a customer a chance to win $2 million by sinking five consecutive three-point baskets during halftime of a recent National Basketball Assn. playoff game.

"It really sounds ridiculous to be saying this, but $1 million isn't what it used to be in terms of many people's perceptions."

Consumers tend to focus on televised events that increasingly are affiliated with highly visible sporting events. But marketers say the baskets, putts and home runs are secondary to the promotional activities staged for weeks leading up to the contests.

Coors' $10-million contest before a Colorado Rockies game in July, for example, "will definitely be fun, and it might also generate some exciting publicity," said Taylor. "But from a sales vantage point, the most important time period was earlier in the spring when the promotional materials were out there in the stores."

Consumer goodwill generated by the event is "icing on the cake," said Coral Gables, Fla.-based sports marketing consultant Scott Becher. "Whether it's a packaged goods manufacturer like Gillette or a telephone company like AT&T, they're trying to maximize their promotional impact before the event takes place."

Coors, for example, spent heavily in April and May to promote a smaller, regional home run contest to be held on Sunday. In this one, $1 million will be up for grabs for a lucky contestant who can clear the fence prior to a Los Angeles Dodgers home game that day.

Coors is sponsoring another contest, this one worth $500,000, Friday in San Diego just before a Padres home game.

Coors estimates it has generated $1 million in free publicity with its promotion, according to Joe Wagner, marketing director for Coors' Southwestern Division, based in Irvine.

Coors says the buzz gained momentum when a sports talk show host announced that contestants, including Los Angeles Unified School District employee John Poore, would be participating in Sunday's contest. Coors hired former Dodger star Kirk Gibson to coach the 39-year-old Whittier resident during a Friday practice session at a City of Industry batting cage--a move that the sponsor hopes will lure television news crews for some advance publicity.

Gibson, who 10 years ago hit his improbable home run to win the first game of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, will also be on hand Sunday to help draw media coverage.

Poore, who hasn't played baseball since high school, says the Coors publicity machine obviously works. "My phone started ringing the day the radio announced the contestants. I've heard from co-workers, friends and people I used to work with."

As $1-million prizes reach down into regional contests like the Coors event on Sunday, sponsors of national promotions are tweaking their campaigns to help make them stand out amid the clutter.

Gillette earlier this year boosted total prize money for its annual football, golf and basketball contests to $2 million. It earmarks half of the $2-million prize--or the $100,000 consolation prize--for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Gillette also has added regional playoff rounds linked to the national contest. The expanded format "allows grass-roots marketing opportunities that can be integrated into the national program," says sports marketing consultant Becher.

Sports-oriented events aren't the only contests pumping up prize amounts. Pillsbury Co.'s Bake-Off has awarded five-figure cash awards since its inception in 1949. But in 1996, Pillsbury increased the top prize to $1 million, making sure it's big enough to capture people's attention.

MasterCard put $2 million on the line Tuesday night when a Chicago doctor tried unsuccessfully to put a puck in the net from the blue line during a break in the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs. The $2 million would have been split with a MasterCard holder watching at home.

Contest sponsors say they root for contestants to clear the fences, sink the putts and make the field goals.

"We want people to win because the buzz is 20 times higher than if someone doesn't kick the field goal," AT&T's Stinson said.

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